Updated: Feb 12, 2019
We take a break from the barrage of Black History Month posts (sorry not sorry) to learn more about Lunar New Year (often known as Chinese New Year, although celebrated by many people across Asia or of Asian ancestry around the world).
Living in the diaspora - meaning that you live or spend time in places that are not your ancestral homelands - can bring up a lot of trauma, struggle and emotions for communities. It can also be an experience of community-building, celebration, rebirth and growth.
Vancouver is situated on the unceded and ancestral occupied lands of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, meaning that the rest of us are all immigrants - and settlers. Within that, though, there is a drastically varied experience of how we came to be guests here; some of us are descended from people brought here through slavery and indentured labour; others from migrating for a better life or fleeing strife. These intergenerational experiences, often inform how we relate to our own cultures.
As I celebrate Black History Month, I experience so much wonder and joy, but also a lot of pain and struggle. Each year, I learn more and more about the violences inflicted on Black folks globally and how, in the present day, that leads to the ongoing erasure of our cultural celebrations. I'm sure these experiences are mirrored for so many other racialized people as well. This brought up so many questions for me; how do we navigate that difficult line between celebrating culture and processing trauma? Can we do both at the same time? How do we connect with cultures that may have been stripped from us? How do we ask our elders to share knowledge with us when those very same stories have been silenced within them?
As people of colour, our relationships with our cultures can be a fraught and confusing one. Whether we were born in Canada or migrated during our lifetime, many of us find different ways to hold on to our ancestral culture. For a lot of Asian and Asian-Canadian Vancouverites, celebrating Lunar New Year is a central piece of that connecting and learning process.
I asked a few of my friends and folks who I've seen writing, making art and performing about their relationship to Asian-ness, what Lunar New Year and the Year of the Pig means to them. I was honoured and inspired by the stories and comments I received, and I hope you are too!
Here are their stories:
she/her, queer Han Chinese settler, @pipagaopoetry
Traditionally, Lunar New Years is a time for going big and going home. Big feasts, big gatherings, big parades, and—if you’re from mainland China—big Gala television programs. But at its heart, it’s a time for reflection and taking stock, spending quality time with those you love, and giving back to the community. It’s a time to nurture and hone in on what home means to us.
For me, the big-ness of New Years is a metaphor for the abundance we wish to have in the coming year—abundance of good fortune, energy, and health—that we also wish on our family, community, and those we love. More concretely, it means squeezing far too many people into a tiny Vancouver house/Vancouver basement suite and folding thousands (well, more like hundreds) of juicy dumplings, displacing the Western Zodiac for the Chinese or Vietnamese one, and watching acrobatic lions dance and chew lettuce!
According to Jen Sookfong Lee, who just released her baby book called The Animals of Chinese New Year, for the year of the Earth Pig, Monkeys (I am a Monkey) ought to “[t]ap into…our entrepreneurial, innovative side, and make plans for the change you want to see in the world.” So, I suppose this year is about growing and making things happen! *nervous gulp*
The Lunar New Year means something special to me. While I admit I have been so westernized to the extent that I don't celebrate it in its entirety, I think it's beautiful to know that throughout the world, there is not simply one universal (Western) way of thinking about time. And if we can recognize that, we expand our ontologies.
CNY is a chance to be with family. We clean the house and put up decorations and sweep out the old year. My mom sets out trays of Chinese sweets and teaches me Chinese sayings that I try to remember but forget within days (but it’s cute nonetheless). We talk about what last year brought us and what we are grateful for.
We have lots of family time and play Mahjong with my elders. If we have a big family dinner at home we do funny diasporic things like ordering sushi or having meatballs with our traditional dishes.
Pearl Low / 盧寶珠
she/her, Chinese and Jamaican, @fumichun
Lunar New Year means to me a time to (re)connect with family, a chance to reconnect to my culture and to eat far more food than I am capable of but if I don't my grandparents feel a certain way!
Kimberley Wong / 黄壯慈
she/they, Cantonese Diaspora
In all honesty, Lunar New Year used to and still makes me anxious. It used to mean I would have to go to family get-togethers where I would sit with my brothers around a large round table silently eating while adults around me spoke Hoisanese, often while periodically pointing at us.
It was really something I dreaded, with the exception of the red envelopes (Chinese name) filled with money I would collect from the adults and the fried tofu and mushroom and duck liver sausage sticky rice I would eat from the lazy Susan. Of course, I'm grateful now for the food, traditions, and literal wealth that this has brought me over the years, but it brings even more of an upwelling of emotions to me now.
I think that this celebration reminds me of these kinds of childhood memories, particularly with elders, that I could have used to collect stories and knowledge for my now beloved work in Chinatown, exploring much of the unseen practices of cultural heritage, including Cantonese opera, where my grandfather made his mark as a symphony leader in the 1960's.
I am reminded constantly of the loss of culture, history, and memory from my ancestors through my stumbles around Chinatown, as I prepare my own home for the new year, using references from Google and from my friends who know these traditions well. I tie red string around my ankles to rid away bad luck - an Auntie in Chinatown told me that you're more prone to bad luck when it's your year, and I'm a pig, so here I am showering with red string around my limbs.
I buy paper lanterns and papers and hang them in my room to feel some semblance of connection to my cultural traditions, I try to write gung hei faat choi (Chinese translation) in all of my emails for the period of celebration, and still, this holiday brings me anxiety. But now it's morphed into a sort of old, well known friend, who says hello to to remind me of the diasporic traditions my family *has* gathered and carried along with us through five generations away from China.
We gather and talk about school, about work, about extended family, and I get to ask questions about what it was like to operate the Chinese Canadian family restaurant in Kamloops, or about what it was like to go to Cantonese school in Chinatown everyday, or about my grandfather, whose footsteps I follow around Chinatown through clan associations and sounds of the guqin he played. Lunar New Year means a lot to me.
second generation Canadian-born Chinese
I didn't grow up celebrating Lunar New Year, but certain components of it like receiving red envelopes and eating traditional Chinese food got mixed in with birthday and Christmas traditions in my family.
We were the only Chinese people in the town; the few other Asian families were Filipino. For me, it's still a sore spot, still painful, still a work in progress...
I don't know how to relate to many cultural traditions but food is usually a good place to start. It's especially hard when you don't know your mother tongue.
she/her, Korean immigrant, @leerachelsy
Lunar New Year is so many things for me... It's about family and food! I remember as a kid, back in Korea, sleeping over at my grandparents place, waking up early to help my mom and aunts to cook traditional new year foods for a LOT of relatives. When new year comes around nowadays, I reminisce a lot and miss being surrounded by relatives. It's now a time for me to think about my connections to my culture and ancestors!
My family still adheres to the Confucianist practices of honouring our ancestors, which I think is pretty cool and am really grateful for. Now, living in Vancouver, we carry on a lot of traditional practices but unfortunately we don't get to have 30+ relatives come together from all over Korea like we used to.
Y Vy Truong
I think my relationship to Lunar New Year has changed a lot over time and it's a bit complicated especially when I think about different levels of erasure (how sometimes LNY is still considered Chinese New Years, which reduces the other countries that celebrate LNY and how, from a Vietnamese perspective, it undermines colonialism; LNY also reminds me of the failures of Canadian multiculturalism). But I've been trying to think about what LNY/Tet means to me in the context of being apart of the Vietnamese diaspora, which is that this is a moment I celebrate with my family and ancestors.
So, when I celebrate LNY, I'm thinking about that lineage that engages with a lot of different things like cultural practices that are imperfect, and trying to carve space where I can experience and honour the fact that my relationship to Vietnam will always be complicated and that it's okay. I pray to my ancestors during this time and it's because I want to acknowledge that I function as a part of a history much greater than the present moment. It's about anti-assimilation, its about being a queer person of colour that honours my family's history, and it's about reclaiming a practice of familial care/ancestral piety that has been disrupted during the Vietnam war (my parents being former refugees and immigrants).
The year of the pig is actually my year, and there's this idea that when it's your zodiac year you have to be cautious and diligent because bad luck/fortune is close by. And my interpretation of it is that I have to stay humble, practice humility, and to be considerate of both myself and to my environment whether that's to the land or to the people around me.