When I was younger, I used to ask my mom to tell me stories about what it was like to celebrate the Chinese New Year with her family in China. She’d tell me about staying up all night with dozens of cousins she rarely got to see, spending all her red envelope money on books, eating dumplings and steamed fish on the first day of the new year, and setting off firecrackers in the streets with her friends. It sounded like so much fun. As I listened to her stories, I often wished that I had grown up in China so I could experience those things, too.
The ideas of “home” and “family” are integral to the Chinese New Year, which begins Friday. After a whole year of separation due to work, families get together and bid the old year goodbye and welcome the new one. It’s the most important holiday in the country. Each year, hundreds of millions of people head home to their families for the reunion dinner that takes place on New Year’s Eve, sparking the largest human migration on the planet. Together, they pray for good luck and wealth in the upcoming year.
But until last year, I never felt like I truly understood what the big deal was.
My parents immigrated to this country in 1990, joining thousands of other Chinese immigrants who left their homes in search of brighter futures. In doing so, they gave up being able to see their families for long stretches of time, so my brother and I grew up celebrating the Chinese New Year in a simpler way. My mom made dumplings each year and recorded the New Year’s Gala, a splashy, nationally televised event full of music and comedic sketches. (Later I would find out that many of my Chinese American friends were also subjected to watching the show, despite not being totally clear on how our parents managed to find streams.) My grandparents rewarded us with red envelopes full of money for good luck after we paid our respects, but as I got older and moved away from home, the desire to preserve those traditions disappeared.
In January 2017, my mom brought me to Kunming, her hometown, for the festivities. We traveled to a beautiful lake with 30 of her relatives, and I witnessed how much it meant for my mom to be home during the holiday. For the first time in a long time, she was able to catch up with the cousins she had grown up with, visit her grandmother’s grave, and introduce me to the family traditions she held dear.
Even now, I remember how inexplicably happy I felt on New Year’s Eve, standing on the street with my cousins after a rowdy night of karaoke and listening to strings of firecrackers explode in puffs of smoke. The pops, which echoed throughout the city, seemed like they would never stop.
I realized at that moment that it didn’t matter that I only saw my relatives every five years or so, or that we grew up in vastly different cultures — to them, I was family, which meant that our lives will always be connected in a profound way. Even though they had been practically strangers to me when the trip first started, I would always have their backs and they would always have mine.
In that moment, I felt like I belonged. To someone who is used to feeling like an outsider because of physical appearance, who speaks their parents’ language with a hesitation that never goes away, that’s a big deal.
I have no delusions about my inability to preserve traditions like this one perfectly, even though my parents have instilled in me a deep respect for Chinese history and culture. I am terrible at making dumplings. I know that I’m lucky to speak any Mandarin at all, despite feeling a bit like an impostor whenever I visit China.
Growing up, I used to try to shed the parts of myself that seemed the most “Chinese.” I refused to bring Chinese food to school after a classmate made fun of how my lunches smelled. I resented spending my Saturday afternoons learning Mandarin in a classroom when my friends were having birthday parties and playdates instead. I hated being asked by teachers to say something in Mandarin in class or talk about Chinese culture, especially because my answer was often, “I don’t know.” I felt like a poorly equipped, often confused ambassador tasked with educating those around me about a rich culture that I had a deeply complex relationship with.
As I got older, I realized that it wasn’t my responsibility to teach others about my parents’ culture, and that my parents didn’t expect me to carry on their Chinese New Year traditions. All they wanted me to do was to build bridges between the Chinese and American parts of my identity in ways that I was comfortable with. If that meant shedding some of the traditions that they cared about and creating new ones with the Asian American community I’ve found here, that was OK.
While writing this essay, I called my mom to ask her questions about the holiday that is both familiar yet unfamiliar to me. At the end of our conversation, I asked her if she was sad that some of the traditions she held close to her heart were going to be lost over time.
“I always think each culture has their advantages and weaknesses,” she said after a pause. “I want you to keep some Chinese traditions, but I know that it’s also important for you to learn American traditions as well. I also realized that you can’t always keep a tradition without being in the environment where it started. It’s hard that way.”
Last year, I celebrated the Chinese New Year amid the clatter of mah-jongg tiles with dozens of relatives. This year, it’s much more likely that I’ll go out to eat with my friends in Chinatown, grab some bubble tea, and call my parents to wish them a happy new year. Maybe next year I’ll host a dumpling-making party. That doesn’t mean that celebrating the Chinese New Year is any less significant — it just means that I’ve finally started learning how to close the gaps between my nebulous understanding of Chinese culture and my American background and finding my own definition of “home.”