Lunar New Year might bring to mind festivals and fireworks, but I’ve always associated it with a kind of isolation. Long before the pandemic, long before the rest of America learned about sriracha and pho, I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee family in a mostly white town in Michigan.
We knew what it meant to be at once invisible and too visible. But at least once a year, on Tet, that racial isolation felt self-chosen; this holiday, the most important day of the year, seemed to be just for us. I could stay home from school, forget about homework and chores. Collect red envelopes filled with money. Eat fried spring rolls, sticky rice cakes, pickled leeks, dried coconut and persimmons, all kinds of treats. My grandmother would cook and prep for days. Sometimes we’d go to the Buddhist temple she helped establish; sometimes we’d visit one of the few other Vietnamese families nearby. Everyone we saw looked like us. I didn’t talk to my white friends and classmates about this holiday, and they didn’t ask. It’s not that I felt ashamed; I just didn’t feel like sharing.
Since then, I’ve watched Lunar New Year become known to most Americans as Chinese New Year. I’ve watched it become an activity in my kids’ schools, a lesson in ethnicity by way of dumplings, fried rice, fortune cookies—whatever seems vaguely Asian, like that wonton font we can’t seem to get away from. I wouldn’t say that we Asians in America are used to being essentialized by food, but we’re never surprised by it.
This is the second year in a row of canceled parades, the second Lunar New Year of looking for the comfort in being hidden away. And there is some. When you’re Asian, it can be a relief not to have to see strangers staring at you. “Wuhan!” someone yelled in my direction last summer. I was in my car; he was on the sidewalk. I rolled up the window. I don’t know if that’s an extreme example; I would say it’s a common one. A reminder of why it’s important to have a holiday for us, to celebrate a new year when isolation is both imposed and chosen.
I remember realizing as a kid that the date of every Lunar New Year was determined by the actual new moon. It felt surprisingly literal, my first lesson in how calendars are made. This past year, most of us have had to re-evaluate how we spend our days. Maybe that’s why I’ve been thinking so much about the arrival of the new year: how civilizations have relied on the moon to make sense of time and its passage; that we have a need to find order and start fresh.
So, what am I planning for Feb. 12, this quiet ushering in of the Year of the Buffalo, also known as the Year of the Ox? I can tell you that I’ll be on Zoom with my extended family. I’ll be talking with my kids about goals and wishes for this year. I might get some of the foods my grandmother used to get, make some foods she used to make. Though I don’t follow many superstitions, I definitely won’t cut my hair. I haven’t done so for months anyway, and will wait months more. With any luck, I will remember to buy yellow flowers. And when my kids wake up on Tet, I know they’ll feel the same excitement I remember feeling. They’ll rush over to me and say, “Chuc mung nam moi,” in order to receive the red envelopes they know are due to them. It’s part tradition, part ritual, part ordinary way of life. Just for us.
On Lunar New Year, the moon is always invisible. That’s what a new moon is. Impossible not to read meaning into that, so I do. And that’s how I know that whatever is invisible is merely hidden; that light will always rise. We just have to wait. Think about all the times, alone at night, you’ve looked out a window to find the moon. We count the days, watching that light get bigger. We hope for a better year for everyone.
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