Original illustration by Charlie Marion
Bright red envelopes full of money, crackling fireworks that fill the night sky, tables covered with homecooked dishes, parades and dances in the streets. Across Asia, more than a billion people will be celebrating the Lunar New Year in big and small ways on Feb. 1 this year. The date, which changes every year according to the lunar or lunisolar calendar, marks one of the largest holidays in the world, despite its relative obscurity in the United States. Thought to have originated in China thousands of years ago, the holiday is celebrated by many Asian cultures including in Vietnam, Korea, Mongolia, Tibet, Singapore and Taiwan.
And despite a worldwide pandemic that has lasted more than two years, families in the Triad are finding their own ways to recognize the global holiday.
Jamie Yi — Korean — Seollal
“It’s all about family.”
As a child growing up in South Korea, Jamie Yi would look forward to the Lunar New Year, known as Seollal in Korea, every year because she knew she would receive money from her visiting relatives.
“You’re not just getting money from the parents or grandparents, you have to do sebae, it’s a kind of formal bow, and you do it for all of the adults and you get money after that,” Yi explains. “So you know it’s going to be financially good for the kids.”
Yi remembers her house filling up with relatives from all over the country, her aunts and uncles and her cousins. Most of them would come because her father was the eldest son in his family, but it usually meant more work for her mom.
“Basically all the work is female work when it comes to Seollal,” Yi says. “It’s about making foods and cleaning the house and making sure the rooms are ready for the relatives, so I still remember my mom was always a little stressed.”
Yi fondly remembers the dishes her mom would cook: everything from rice cakes to dumplings to marinated meat to savory pancakes like pajeon, and glass noodles called japchae. Because the holiday is so family-centric, in addition to making food for the visiting family members, food would also be presented to ancestors in a ritual called jesa. The dishes are carefully laid out on a low table with photos of ancestors and a written prayer known as a shinwi. Family members then bow in front of the setup before they eat. Additionally, Yi says they would visit the shrines of deceased family members to pay their respects as well.
“It’s all about family,” Yi says. “I think it’s similar to how people celebrate Christmas. It’s important because it’s all about family and gathering and being grateful.”
When Yi left South Korea for Michigan with her husband in 2004, she says they had to find ways to celebrate Seollal on their own. They lived in apartments with other Korean students, so they hosted potlucks and had a more informal version of the holiday. After she and her husband moved to North Carolina in 2010 and they had their sons, keeping up the traditions became even harder because of the smaller Korean community here.
Yi says that she and her family, despite not being religious, joined a local Korean church just so they would continue to have a place to celebrate. However, in the last few years because of the pandemic, they have had to scale back. Fortunately, this past December, her family visited California, where her brother lives, and they all celebrated Seollal a month early together. They ate the same kinds of foods and played the familiar games they enjoyed when they were kids. For Yi, it was the closest thing to being back in South Korea.
“As an immigrant family, you are grateful to have another family in this country and to do this kind of celebration together,” Yi says. “I was really thankful for that. But we still miss our parents, who live in South Korea. That’s the whole issue for any kind of immigrants in this country. It’s every immigrant family.”
This year, Yi says they’ll FaceTime her parents in Korea and hang out as a family. But because the holiday isn’t officially recognized by the school district, Yi says it can be hard to fully celebrate. As a special education teacher at Grimsley High School, she wishes that the county would make Lunar New Year a teacher workday every year.
“I think it’s important to teach Lunar New Year because people have no clue when it is or who’s celebrating,” Yi says. “They don’t know what it is about but that’s who you live with and work with. You are living with people from all different cultures.”
Yuh-Lang Ling — Taiwan — Spring Festival
“[E]verything would be done; everyone would go home.”
Yuh-Lang Ling is a like a walking talking Taiwanese history book. Despite being a professor of meteorology at NC A&T State University, Ling speaks passionately about the history of his country when prompted. He explains that the Lunar New Year started in China and subsequently spread to the different countries in Asia, including Taiwan. Ling says that thousands of years ago, farmers used the lunisolar calendar for their crops and rarely took breaks. It’s possible the Lunar New Year came about as a way to give workers some days off.
“It was a 5-to-10 day period where almost everything would be done,” Ling says. “Everyone would go home.”
Similar to how other countries celebrate Lunar New Year, in Taiwan, Ling says that it’s a time of gathering and spending time with family.
“It’s the biggest holiday in Taiwan,” Ling says. “It’s not like the Gregorian Solar Holiday New Year, where it’s only one or two days, this one you normally have one week off. Everyone would come home and stay for at least five days.”
In Korean culture, because most families gathered at the husband or father’s house, Ling explains that the second day of the Lunar New Year week is called the “Homecoming Day” for women, in which the female family members would go home to visit their parents.
During the week, families would feast on fish, meat and vegetables and set out food for their ancestors. A poem would be written on a banner and hung on the front door to encourage good health, fortune and happiness for the coming year.
After Ling came to North Carolina in 1987, he says he discovered the local Taiwanese Association and began taking his kids to their celebrations every year. He taught his daughters, who now live in Kansas City and Los Angeles, Taiwanese and he and other families would host a potluck and play games. Since the pandemic, the celebrations have moved online; he and his wife have been recognizing the holiday by having a home-cooked meal together.
Because he has to work during this year’s holiday, he says it’ll be a small celebration, if any.
“Probably my wife will buy some takeout or she’ll cook at home,” Ling says. “It’s not as much as when I was in Taiwan because we don’t have big celebrations of the holiday here.”
Kristin Eckart — Vietnam — Tet
“The older he got, the more important it became to him.”
When Kristin Eckart adopted his son Thomas more than a decade ago, she never could have guessed how much she would learn about the Lunar New Year. Eckart and her husband George, who are white, have two sons, Thomas Tung Eckart and John Toan Eckart, who are both from Vietnam. When they were deciding where to adopt from all those years ago, Kristin says that they chose Vietnam because it seemed like a country they could visit, and they had heard how complicated the domestic adoption process could be. But as the years went on, she realized that she needed to immerse her sons in their native culture so they wouldn’t feel disconnected from it later in life. That’s when she started learning about Tet, or the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.
“I wanted to recognize that if my children had stayed in Vietnam, that this is a huge deal there,” she says. “We don’t have anything equivalent to what they celebrate as far as a holiday. We wanted to honor that part of their background.”
When the Eckarts adopted Thomas, Kristin says there were several other families in the area who had adopted children from Vietnam; they ended up gathering together to celebrate the holiday with input from local Vietnamese people.
“We had to do a lot of learning and talking to people,” Eckart says. “We knew that growing up in a white family was going to be weird.”
Before the pandemic, Kristin says they would host potlucks with other families around the new year date. One year, they had a Vietnamese exchange student stay with them and she expressed the importance of fireworks during the holiday. After that, they started incorporating little firecrackers each year. Another year they hired professional dancers to do dragon dancers to teach the kids some basic moves. The kids learned to cook dumplings and they got presents each year, too.
“I don’t ever want to claim that I know everything about Vietnam because I don’t,” Eckart says. “It’s just really important to our family that we celebrate it.”
The most impactful part of the holiday for Thomas was getting to be in the presence of so many other Asian kids, Kristin says.
“The older he got, the more important it became to him,” she says. “He got to be in a huge room with other Asian kids where they’re not asking him where he’s from.
“He is surrounded day in and day out by American culture, which is fine. But I need him, when he goes out into the world, to have a foundational understanding of these things,” she added.
Thomas, who is now 14 and has been thinking more about his identity, says that celebrating Tet is weird sometimes because his parents are white but that it’s fun because he gets to hang out with his friends. Her younger son, John, 10, says he appreciates that he gets to celebrate a part of his culture. Plus, he likes getting candy.
The hope for Eckart is that one day, her sons will be able to fully celebrate the holiday the way it is in their home country.
“I think it’s just part of who they are,” Eckart says. “One day I hope they can really experience it in a city that has a sizeable Vietnamese population or go back and experience it in Vietnam.”
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