We're joining nearly 2B others to begin celebrating the Lunar New Year today, with festivities running up to 15 days that are fueled by the dynamic culture and tradition of multiple counties in east Asia. To get things started we tapped DENTSU CREATIVE US's learning and development advisor Shelly Ng and behavior insights analyst Trish Nguyen to share in how their different backgrounds as a Chinese American and a Vietnamese American respectively impact their holiday observances. Extending wishes of happiness, wealth and prosperity to all!
Shelly> Lunar New Year has become a major part of my identity. This is the time when I feel most comfortable with my family, especially my parents, and most excited to be at home. I bond with them through cleaning, decorating, cooking, and eating. I am also able to verbally wish them well (with New Year greetings) without the usual awkwardness I feel during other times. My fondest memories with my family are during this holiday.
Trish> In Vietnamese culture, Lunar New Year is part of our heritage and is the most important holiday. I celebrate Lunar New Year to express respect to our ancestors, have a family reunion after a long year and welcome spring and a fresh start. I also use this time to reflect on the past year.
Shelly> The biggest misconception is that this holiday is 'Chinese New Year.' Many don’t know that it is celebrated throughout numerous Asia nations with histories and traditions that differ across regions even within the same country. For example, dumplings are more commonly eaten in northern China during new year. My parents are from Guangdong, a province in south China, so we make rice cake (年糕 or 'New Year’s Cake') with glutinous rice flour and brown sugar. The word in Chinese is a homonym of 年高 , which directly translates to 'high year,' which means higher in all aspects of life (wealth, career, etc.) and a better year to come. You will find that many names of traditional foods and some of our superstitions exist due to various homonyms.
Trish> The holiday is based on the lunar calendar, which starts the day of the new moon. People who live in Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Mongolia, Singapore and Indonesia also celebrate the holiday, and each country has its own traditions – except for zodiac signs, which are similar across all countries that observe the holiday. In Vietnam, the holiday is called Tet. There is no set date for Lunar New Year. One year we celebrate it in January, another year we celebrate it in February, and we celebrate for 10 days long. As for the preparation, we start prepping for the new year two weeks before the occasion. I usually order hanging decorations, calligraphy and candies from Vietnamese communities like in California, Texas, or Florida a month leading to the holiday. We then go to Asian supermarkets to buy traditional foods and new traditional clothes for the holiday.
Shelly> I would say the holiday has been more recognized due to the growth of the Asian American population over the years. According to the Pew Research Centre, Asian Americans were the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the US from 2000 to 2019. I hope this means that people are being more aware and acknowledging the nuances of an Asian American person’s experience and culture. There is an opportunity to spread knowledge, learn, and engage in insightful discussions across cultures. This has also opened doors to more recognition and representation of Asian people in media with movies such as 'Crazy Rich Asians,' 'Parasite,' and 'Shang Chi.' Something to be wary of is taking what we see in these movies at face value without going deeper into learning the true meaning of what is depicted. This could lead to inappropriately applying an aspect of the culture. For example, the recent UK news outlets that included incense paper and funerary envelopes in images for Lunar New Year recipes.
Trish> I think it’s definitely due to the growing of Asian American and Asian international students in the US. It’s also thanks to the popularity of K-pop culture, social media platforms and movies that inspire curiosity among people to learn about culture.
Shelly> My team has been great about learning more about my family’s traditions and is interested in the superstitions and foods of the holiday. They opened the conversation by asking how my mom had been preparing, and they were curious about what we usually do. Genuine curiosity is key. Let your colleagues who celebrate Lunar New Year know that you wish them a 'Happy New Year' (not a happy lunar new year).
Trish> Lunar New Year is more about cultural significance. It’s more of an inclusive celebration, thus everyone is welcome to celebrate. We can all come together for a feast and just have fun!
Shelly> As a child, I looked forward to going to the parade to get party snappers and hear them pop as they reached the floor. My family would also go to the temple to pay respect to ancestors and eat a vegetarian meal called jai. These traditions and activities aren’t ones my family does anymore. The tradition that has stuck with me to this day is hanging the red banners (揮春 ) with wishes for good luck, happiness, and more. I got to do this one year when my mom was too busy preparing something. Since then I have been the designated decorator. Every year we have a big sign with the character for prosperity (福 ) and the four letter wish for ‘safety when entering and exiting’ (出入平安 chut yup ping on). My mom used to buy 学业进步 bo for ‘success in studies’ when I was in school. Although this is a long-standing tradition, it still evolves based on where we are in life and the wishes we have for the new year.
Trish> When I was a child, we went to Vietnam to celebrate it with our grandparents. We would visit my parents' relatives’ houses, exchange New Year’s greetings, give and receive lucky money, have feasts, and eat New Year candies. My favourite tradition as a child was getting lucky money, eating traditional Vietnamese foods and candies, and playing games like bingos. Now as an adult, my favourite part of the holiday is cleaning up and decorating my house (yes, seriously!) with peach flowers, orange trees and calligraphy, play bingo – bet to win money, and also, go home to visit my parents..
Shelly> I do not know if I have a favourite one, but the ones I will never fail to follow are getting my New Year’s haircut and not washing my hair on New Year’s Day. Hair in Chinese (发 fat) is the same character as in the word 发财 fat choy, which means to gain wealth. We avoid washing our hair to make sure we don’t wash away our fortune and we get a haircut for new wealth in the new year.
Shelly> Some foods I would eat during the holiday include:
煎堆 jin (fried sesame balls)- Their shape and golden colour represent good luck. While frying in the oil, they grow in size which represents growth in prosperity.
发糕 fat (prosperity cakes or wealth cakes)- You may notice the first character is the same as the one in gaining wealth. When these cakes are steamed, they rise and expand which represent growth in wealth for the new year.
罗汉斋 lo jai or jai (Buddha’s Delight)- The first two characters lo refer to Buddha’s 18 disciples and jai refers to all vegetarian foods eaten by Buddhist monks. We use the word jai to mean any vegetarian food. My family eats this the morning of New Year’s Day, as it is thought to bring luck and purify. Many of the ingredients’ names are homonyms of wealth and good fortune in Chinese.
Trish> In the Vietnamese culture, we eat:
banh chung (made of square sticky rice cake made with sticky rice, mung bean and pork) - to express gratitude to our ancestors and homeland.
banh tet (circle sticky rice cake) - demonstrate the important of rice in the Vietnamese culture, also teach us to respect our parents and grandparents.
Xoi Gac (Gac sticky rice) - symbolises luck and goodness.
Fish – fish symbolises wealth, luck and if you have leftovers for the next day, it suggests your riches will continue throughout the new year.
Trish > Red symbolises good fortune, vitality, good luck, prosperity and that what people wish for during the new year.
Trish > We give and receive red envelopes because it symbolises good wishes and luck for the new year ahead.