Ever since I was little, I’ve been celebrating Lunar New Year with my family.
The holiday usually marks the time that my mom attempts to strangle me in some piece of red clothing — some because I would throw a fit if I had to wear a full-on dress as a child — and for waiting patiently for adults to hand you the red envelope full of money.
I love this tradition, not for the typical reason of acquiring money, but more because I think it shows a lot of character in the person receiving it.
With my 12-plus cousins, I can see the whole spectrum of personalities, from opening the red envelope and counting the money inside the minute it hits their palms, to storing it safely in their mom’s purse because “good kids invest their envelopes.” Yeah, I was the latter.
No matter what they do with the red envelope, every cousin is beholden by the sacred tradition of thanking their bequeather for the gift. Here came the awkward moment where I stumbled over Cantonese phrases, attempting to convey my thanks to my uncles and aunts and tell them how I wished them a healthy, lucky new year.
To me, these traditions didn’t stick out to me as unique while I was growing up. It wasn’t as if they were something groundbreaking or monumental. They were just part of my daily life.
But, I think it really hit me when my grandpa died. One tradition practiced during Lunar New Year includes worshipping one’s ancestors. When we visited my grandpa’s grave, we burned fake money and incense to send him fortune and to pay our respects.
I actually really like this tradition (not to be morbid). Personally, I'm not religious, but I felt that in doing these acts, I felt spiritually connected to my grandpa. When we finished burning the offerings, we would bow three times, slowly trudge down the hill his grave was on and head home.
Of course, by this point, I knew that these traditions were something more than just eating good food or getting money. These traditions are a part of my culture. They connect me to the many generations of my family, dating all the way back to Hong Kong and China.
But even with all these traditions, I felt like I was still an ignorant American Born Chinese (ABC) kid. I honestly didn't know the extent to which this holiday is celebrated by people around the world, that is until I went to study abroad in the Spring 2019 semester in Hong Kong.
This trip really made me realize what I was missing out on. Mainstream media in America — something that I consume a lot of and should really try to branch away from — doesn't do Lunar New Year celebrations any justice. (Pro tip: Mainstream media also doesn't do anyone cultural justice either. If you're wishing someone who celebrates, avoid calling the holiday "Chinese New Year" as a lot of different ethnicities celebrate the day too, including Koreans and Vietnamese, to name a few).
When you think of Lunar New Year, you probably imagine the nuclear family preparing for dinner, while relatives from all over patronize the house. You see red signs posted on every surface and even a picture of the zodiac animal of the year, in this case, the ox. You even see the family practicing dumpling making together.
This is all very normal, and not at all what I experienced on my first Lunar New Year in Hong Kong — I say first because I will be going back some time before I die, I promise.
I landed in Hong Kong on Jan. 6, 2019 and already was able to see the signs that people were preparing for the holiday of their lives. I kid you not, there is a whole street of vendors in Hong Kong during Lunar New Year celebrating, which actually extended from the day of until 11 days later, that just sell flowers. Each shop is close to bursting with orchids.
Then, on Lunar New Year’s Eve, thousands of people crammed into Victoria Park’s Flower Market to celebrate the coming of the new year by eating sweet snacks, selling cute trinkets and playing stall games.
At night, there's a huge parade in the Tsim Sha Tsui area that features lion dances and different cultural groups. The next day, there are fireworks on display over Lunar New Year’s Victoria Harbor.
Don’t think that celebrating Lunar New Year is just one family-oriented, sweet meal together — it can be a total rager.
All this is to say that I miss being able to celebrate like I used to. Aside from the parties and the money, Lunar New Year is fundamentally about family — that never changes. Given this, being unable to celebrate with them is tragic and, even worse, being too far away to taste the food of home.
But, there are a few things that might help you through the separation. This year, my family and I Venmoed each other our red envelopes, scheduled a Zoom call so we could eat together and of course, dressed up in red.
If you're going to commemorate the day with one action, then it has to be reconnecting with old friends and family. Texting my Hong Kong godfather and godbrother (if that’s a thing?) on Lunar New Year was not only nostalgic, but also truly fulfilling.
To all of you who are celebrating Lunar New Year away from your loved ones, it can be hard. The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has really taken too much from us, but I think that Lunar New Year is more than just about celebrating the holiday in each others' physical presence. If you can't be with them in person, then try to be there with them spiritually.
In the meantime, you can count your money, digital or otherwise, and thank your relatives for their generosity — don't forget the thanks, or else you won't be getting any next year.