Disclaimer: Although I’ve never done a 23andMe analysis, I’m sure I am not of Asian descent. My family never personally celebrated Lunar New Year, and I’m writing this as someone who grew up aware of this holiday and local celebrations. Therefore, if you’re reading this and are interested in celebrating Lunar New Year, please do not take everything I saw as expert testimony but as a suggestion and a jumping-off point. I’m writing this to promote a beautiful holiday and show support for the communities that celebrate this holiday, but if I need to correct something, please let me know because I am also still learning!
Growing up in the Bay Area can make a person complacent. I had the privilege of being surrounded by a diverse population, with access to experiences that not every person in the United States has. As a child, I remember one of my teachers planning a class activity for the Chinese New Year. We were all given red slips of paper and taught to write “Gong hei fat choy” (which I think is the Cantonese version of “Happy Lunar New Year,” but Dr. Google has told me it means many different things). We learned about the zodiac calendar, and I believe we even had a small parade at my school. When I think back on it, I remember it as a pretty awesome time.
For those unfamiliar with this holiday, Lunar New Year marks the beginning of the new year on the Lunisolar Calendar (a different calendar from the Gregorian, which most western cultures use now). Although it is observed as only one day in the United States, the Lunar New Year is the beginning of the Spring Festival, which is celebrated for sixteen days. Lunar New Year (or Chinese New Year, for those celebrating in China) is one of the most important holidays in Chinese culture. Lunar New Year is also observed in Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam, as well as in other parts of Asia. There are also massive celebrations of the holiday in the United States and other countries with large Asian populations.
In San Francisco, there is an annual Chinese New Year parade. San Francisco is no longer home to the largest Chinatown in the US (I believe that honor now goes to NYC), but it is the oldest. The Chinese New Year Parade is an exciting event that draws many people and boasts fancy corporate sponsorship. For this year, 2023, the Year of the Rabbit, Alaska Airlines has sponsored the parade, and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of San Francisco has placed giant rabbit statues throughout the city to celebrate. These statues will be up until February 5th, 2023, so if you are in San Francisco, check them out!
Sadly, I will not be able to participate in the rabbit statue hunt this year, which bums me out because I love rabbits, I love statues, and I love a good scavenger hunt. I currently live in the US’s Western Idaho/Eastern Washington region, which includes many glamorous wonders like wheat fields and terrible weather.
Aside from a few student clubs and maybe an event in the nearest big city, there isn’t much to do in the Palouse to celebrate Lunar New Year. While that bums me out a little, this lack of acknowledgment can be a lot harder on people of Asian descent. Especially people who have immigrated from different parts of Asia to more rural areas of the US, where they may be one of the few Asian people in their community. I don’t want the Year of the Rabbit to go unnoticed just because I, or any readers, live in a smaller town.
My policy on celebrating just about any holiday is as follows: I don’t mind if I’m not invited to the party; I just like knowing that the party is happening. With that spirit in mind, I’ve assembled a few suggestions for myself and any readers to start the Year of the Rabbit on a positive note.
If you live within an hour of a city, it could be really fun to use this time as an excuse to go to the city, see if there is a Chinatown, and support any local businesses or restaurants. As much as I love P.F. Chang’s and their Great Wall of Chocolate, you’re better off looking for a family-owned restaurant. If any places are open, this could be a great opportunity to challenge your taste buds and try something new. For example, even though I could live on green onion pancakes, I try to branch out occasionally. One year, before I became a vegetarian, I went to Great Eastern Restaurant and split an order of Chicken and Cold Jellyfish with a friend. The jellyfish didn’t rock my world, but I’m glad I tried it because I have never seen it served at any other restaurant. I’ve also met at least one American carnivore who claimed he loved jellyfish and would happily have it again.
Nowadays, my “branching out” tends to limit itself to various tofu dishes and vegetable dishes. As much as I love to stay in my comfort zone, it’s a good reminder that I need to try something new. I’m a big fan of the food vloggers Li Ziqi and Dianxi Xiaoge. These vloggers live in different parts of China and create a lot of content about the foods they prepare. Both women have a wealth of content related to various Chinese holidays and traditions, although their content is slightly different. As of 2022, Li Ziqi has yet to post as much content because of a legal dispute, but before this, her videos ranged from food preparation to making clothes to creating furniture. Her videos are stunningly beautiful and manage to frame her corner of the Sichuan Province to look like something out of a fantasy movie. Meanwhile, Dianxi Xiaoge lives in Yunnan and posts content almost entirely related to food preparation. While her content is not always holiday-specific, her videos have a warm, comforting aura that makes you want to curl up with some hot pot. If you like their videos as much as I do, maybe take them as inspiration to try for yourself.
For example, Li Ziqi and Dianxi Xiaoge enjoy hot pot with their families. You can and should enjoy traditional foods for Lunar New Year. I don’t know if hot pot is one of those traditional foods, but I suggest it as a possible meal because it’s relatively easy to assemble, can be enjoyed by many people, and is a lot of fun. A hot pot is a delicious broth that you dip various foods into to cook. These foods can range from pork to vegetables to mushrooms and fish cakes. It’s a bit like fondue but without lactose-induced diarrhea.
To my knowledge, hot pot originated in China but is enjoyed throughout parts of Asia (in Japan, there is a similar cooking technique called Shabu-shabu). This is one reason why I recommend it for celebrating Lunar New Years, but I also recommend doing a little research to try and be more authentic. For example, if you happen to have friends from Korea who would like to celebrate, it might be nice to incorporate foods like Korean rice cakes or bulgogi. I mean, if you have access to a Korean BBQ place, you should just go and have a great time, but if not, try and make something yourself. I could hork a million of the scrumptious almond cookies sold at most Asian grocery stores, but since I’m not sure where to get those, I may try my hand at this recipe from Vietnamese-American vlogger Dzung Lewis. My point is, even if you live somewhere where it is difficult to access authentic Asian food, with a little creativity and research, you may be able to assemble a nice spread. Bonus if it makes your friends from out of the country feel a little more at home.
In addition to the incredible foods you can enjoy for Lunar New Year, this is also a great time to read books and watch films that celebrate Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean culture. Once again, I am not an expert on this and only share what I know. I should read more books by Asian authors, and any suggestions readers may have are welcome!
One of my favorite books is “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu, a Chinese-American author. His story, “All the Flavors,” is about a group of Chinese men who come to Idaho City to pan for gold. The story is told from the perspective of a young girl, Lily Seaver, and is about the friendship she forms with the men renting a room from her father. The story begins with quite a bit of tension between the two cultures, but gradually their communities come together and even celebrate Chinese New Year. The story is based on the Chinese communities who used to live in parts of Idaho (And according to Liu, some of these towns still hold a Chinese New Year celebration in honor of these people). I had some trouble finding Chinese New Year activities in Idaho City, but if this interests you, I recommend doing some additional research! This could be a way to pay respect to the people who once lived in Idaho Territory but could not grow their communities due to anti-Chinese immigration laws. In the epilogue to his story, Liu recommends the book “A Chinaman’s Chance: The Chinese on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier,” by Liping Zhu, for anyone interested in the history of the Chinese in gold-rush Idaho.
If you’re interested in watching a movie, which is a lot easier than pounding an entire book, then there are a lot of great movies to choose from. (SPOILERS AHEAD) I feel like some people may be interested in watching the classic movie “The Joy Luck Club,” which I like because it features many fantastic performances from Chinese actresses (including Lauren Tom, Ming-Na Wen, and Rosalind Chao). However, the movie does feature some negative portrayals of Asian men, which can be unpleasant to watch, as well as an incredibly sad scene where a woman drowns her infant son in a bathtub. I’m spoiling this movie just because I’ve met many people who watched it thinking they were in for a light-hearted story about mothers and daughters and were deeply upset by some of the content. It’s still a really powerful movie worth watching, but just a heads up to anyone who has yet to see it.
Some people may want to watch the 2020 film and best-animated-picture nominee “Over the Moon,” although that movie takes place during the Mid-Autumn Festival (or Moon Festival). It’s still a nice film, so I think viewers will enjoy it! Some of my research has pointed to the film “The Wish Dragon,” although I’ll be honest – I stopped watching this movie about halfway in because the characters felt underwritten and the story was too predictable. Another recommendation I saw was “Kung-Fu Panda,” which I love, but I’m not sure I can attest to the authenticity of those movies. Finally, I tried to look for Vietnamese representation in animated media, but there’s unfortunately very little (aside from Kelly Marie Tran’s work and the film “Raya and the Last Dragon.“) I hope that changes within a few years.
I have one movie recommendation, although I’m unsure how people may feel about it. A few years ago, I watched the 1961 film “Flower Drum Song,” based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. This movie was based on a story written in the 1950s and is far from perfect (there are quite a few stereotypes and some unfortunate miscasting that wouldn’t fly in the 21st century). However, “Flower Drum Song” features a few catchy songs, includes footage from the 1961 San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade, and was inducted into the United State National Film Registry for cultural significance. I am very curious if this musical can be successfully updated for a modern audience.
So for this Lunar New Year, you could try to have a hot pot night with your friends and then round out the evening with a showing of “Flower Drum Song.” For dessert, you could have almond cookies and mandarin oranges. Or maybe you’ll drive out to a city and see if there’s a parade nearby. There are many ways you can celebrate. If you have any friends who celebrate Lunar New Year and would like to invite you to join them, definitely let them steer the direction of the evening. As long as you acknowledge why you’re celebrating and pay respect to the people who honor this time of year, you’re in for a good time.