Today marks the beginning of the New Year – the Lunar New Year, that is. All across China, shops, businesses, and schools will be closed as the Chinese usher in the Year of the Monkey. Here in the U.S., Chinese Americans also celebrate this important holiday by preparing their homes, sharing a feast filled with symbolic foods, and enjoying time with family and friends.
My interest in Chinese New Year stems mainly from our adoption of a baby from China 13 years ago. As a non-Asian family, we have tried to incorporate Chinese cultural traditions so that our daughter can learn about, feel a part of, and be proud of her heritage. This has not always been easy. We tried a Chinese language class for a time. We’ve visited Chinatown and taken in the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes. We have books galore on China and Chinese culture – and pictures from our trip to China to adopt her. But when it comes to holidays such as the Lunar New Year, I think it’s hard to fully understand the significance of a cultural event as an outsider. I’ve read books, talked to friends, and otherwise tried to educate myself on appropriate ways to celebrate the Lunar New Year. But for us, it usually ends up consisting of a visit to a Chinese restaurant and, when she was little, reading a children’s book about the holiday.
Like most 14-year-old girls, my daughter wants to be like all the other eighth grade girls. She states that she is not all that interested in her Chinese heritage, and she hates being confused with one of the few other Asian girls in her grade at school. While I understand this adolescent mentality, I know it will be important to her identity going forward to connect in a meaningful way with the place where she was born. Her story is at least in part united with the story of a great and ancient civilization.
The Chinese zodiac is on a twelve-year cycle. It is believed that the animal which corresponds with the year of one’s birth possesses similar traits. Therefore, certain zodiac years are more desirable than others. The Year of the Dragon, for instance, is the most favorable because of the Dragon’s association with emperors, power, and wealth. In fact, according to Bloomberg Business, during the last Dragon year, 2012, there was a 1.9 percent rise in births in China. This year, maternity bookings at major Chinese hospitals are up 30 percent because the Monkey is known to be crafty, clever, and charming.
My Chinese daughter was born in the Year of the Snake, which means she is supposed to be lively, intelligent, materialistic, and communicative. Interestingly, she does seem to possess these very traits. When she was 12, it was the Year of the Snake once again. I decided to host a Chinese New Year party and invited some of her friends and their families. We decorated the house, had some crafts available for the kids to make, and enjoyed a Chinese feast. It may not have been the traditional feast of a true Chinese New Year. But I know it made her feel special and cherished for her unique place in our family.
In the future, I hope to travel with my daughter to the place where she was born. I want her to see the land from which she came, the natural and cultural treasures that abound in China, and most importantly, the people whose culture she shares.
In the meantime, we will celebrate the New Year with Chinese food and hong bao (red envelopes filled with cash) and wish everyone: