The first time I remember celebrating Lunar New Year, I was around five years old.
My mum bought me a pretty dress, also known as qipao, adorned with flowers and wanted me to dress up for visits to our family and friends. I don’t think I liked the colour, but I put it on and followed my mother as we walked around our local village, bringing food and red envelopes as an offering to celebrate the new year.
We then went to my aunt’s house, where all of my extended family were gathered, to light incense and pray to our ancestors, and eat as much as we could possibly stomach.
After dinner, we stood outside watching the fireworks across Hong Kong harbour, while my cousins and I cheered and swapped our sweets. It was so exciting and full of joy. Almost every Lunar New Year since then has followed a similar format – until now.
It’s been nearly a year since I last spoke to anyone in my Chinese family, and nearly four years since I last saw them in person.
This is for a number of reasons, Covid-19 being a primary factor, but also because of fundamental differences between my family and myself.
The disappointment of losing contact with my family hits me at random moments throughout the year, but it is particularly poignant in the lead up to Lunar New Year. It was during 2021’s celebration that I last spoke with them.
Growing up in Hong Kong, Lunar New Year was a massive celebration – almost as big as Christmas in the UK. This year, it falls on February 1.
Usually, over three days, there are countless events, family dinners, trips to the local market, visiting the elderly in the local village, and plenty of loud fireworks.
I loved every moment of it, and enjoyed the vibrant atmosphere of the city, when others across the world would simply be getting over the January blues and working towards the summer.
But, since losing contact with my family, I am less excited about the festival – because I feel like I can no longer celebrate in the way it was meant to be observed.
As I am mixed-race, it’s upsetting at any time to lose a connection to one half of my identity and culture. But the loss of the traditions, rituals, and cultural markers that signify I am Chinese, during such an important festival in our society, is heartbreaking.
I feel that I can’t take part in these traditions because they are usually spent with family. Without people who understand the significance of the holiday around me, I sometimes question whether it’s even worth celebrating.
I am losing out on the delicious food my mum and aunts would cook, the fun folk stories my cousins would tell about the origin of Lunar New Year, and lighting incense or wearing a red dress to honour my ancestors. Without that, it just doesn’t feel the same.
But I’m determined not to let the joy of Lunar New Year slip from my grasp.
During other Chinese festivals throughout the year since being estranged – such as Qingming, which falls during April, or the Mid-Autumn festival in September – I have wanted to be alone. I wandered around Chinatown, drinking bubble tea, buying delicious pastries from the bakery, and grabbing lunch at my favourite Dim Sum restaurant.
For Lunar New Year though, I don’t want to be by myself so I have made sure to figure out ways of spending the holidays with the people I love, and decorated my home to feel more of a celebratory spirit.
I have bought Fai Chun – the red banners adorned with Chinese idioms meant to usher in an auspicious New Year – and dumplings to keep in the freezer, and I plan on learning some recipes that my mum used to make for me when I was feeling down.
I am also planning a dinner party with some of my closest friends, where the only requirements are to wear red, eat, drink, and be merry – just like the classic Christmas saying.
I will order a massive Chinese takeaway with all my favourite foods and plan to give my friends red envelopes, which can be filled with chocolate coins or real money, the same way my parents and extended family would have done with me. These red envelopes symbolise well wishes and good luck for the new year ahead, with money being given as seed money for success going forward.
Lunar New Year occurs over three days, so there is plenty of time to do all of those things if I wish. There are so many ways of celebrating this amazing festival however you choose to.
Making my own traditions, and celebrating in alternative ways with my friends, is my way of separating Lunar New Year from my estranged family.
It allows me to take focus away from what I’m missing out on back home and ensure that I won’t spend the holiday sad and craving that familial connection.
Despite recognising that being in touch with my Chinese family is untenable, it is hard to not want to pick up the phone and call to wish them a Lunar New Year.
So instead, I will surround myself with my chosen family, the friends and loved ones I have here, who are not aware of the many facets of Lunar New Year so I can introduce them to and include them in my culture in our own special way.
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Chinese New Year 2022
February 1 is Chinese New Year – also known as Lunar New Year – with 2022 being the Year Of The Tiger.
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