Chinese New Year was always my chance to fly home.
Wherever I was in the world, I knew I could always head back, and everything would be the same — a comforting lineup of never-ending feasts with family, dispensing bulging red envelopes of money. But because of the pandemic, the holiday is sadly subdued this year.
Also known as the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, Chinese New Year is usually the largest migration in the world, but I’m sure many like me are celebrating alone this year. While I’m sheltering and working at home in Florida, my immediate family has been in lockdown in California. I haven’t been back to see them in over a year.
“I’ve been depressed about it since the first week of January because that’s when I usually start planning,” said Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, who usually flies back to Singapore to see family or holds a dinner party at her New York City apartment, cramming 60-some people in to celebrate. “None of that is happening, so it’s very quiet. I’ve already asked friends to do a Zoom where we all wear red and gold.”
These two colors signify good fortune. The other traditions of feasting together, making dumplings and gifting money are all group activities that are just not possible with the pandemic.
Another tradition that’s a challenge during the pandemic is lo hei, Tan said, which involves announcing each ingredient along with its meaning of the shared dish yu sheng, a traditional Singaporean salad. The Singaporean government even released a Chinese New Year advisory limiting family visits and avoiding saying the lo hei out loud.
However, Tan, a Singaporean-Chinese author who wrote “A Tiger in the Kitchen” about missing her family’s food, especially during Chinese New Year, does plan to make dumplings on her own and deliver them to members of her pandemic pod.
For Chinese people, food is often our love language, and each dish is imbued with meaning. For example, fish is eaten because the Chinese word for fish sounds like the word for surplus, granting plenty for the year. Long noodles are for long life. Dumplings are shaped like the old, traditional Chinese gold ingots, a symbol of wealth. I made dumplings, bonding with my mom over the recipe on the phone, because I’m not sure when I’ll see her next.
Video chat has replaced in-person gatherings for Myron Lee, too. The San Francisco community advocate is planning to either eat with his family virtually, each picking a dish they would normally be eating together, or sit separately for the meal — Myron with his parents eating off a mah-jongg table in the garage and his sister’s family in the SUV parked in the driveway. And the red envelopes will probably be replaced by online payments.
He does hope to head out to San Francisco’s Chinatown to catch the fireworks, socially distanced, of course.
“The night of Chinese New Year’s Eve, the amount of firecrackers going off in Chinatown is insane, the streets are covered in red from the firecrackers, and they are so loud and continuous that earplugs are a must,” said Lee, who has been organizing and fundraising with Chinatown restaurants to provide meals for their residents. “This year, there is no midnight gathering, but I may still go to Chinatown to watch firecrackers being set off as it’s outdoors.”
Usually, fireworks and lion dancers are central to Lunar New Year, blasting away the bad luck and dancing in the good. Whe
n I lived in Hong Kong, these fireworks rang through the week-long celebration at all hours. Businesses, including my newsroom, would invite lion dancers in for people to feed them red envelopes for luck.
Because flights to Asia were expensive this time of year, my family would rarely fly. But one year, we visited my extended family in Taiwan. The tradition there is to head to Dihua Street for their Lunar New Year market. Both sides of the street were flanked with vendors hawking candy and dried foods. That Lunar News Year’s Eve, we feasted at home, pulling together three tables to fit everyone in.
Another tradition that Lee said he will miss is San Francisco’s Chinese New Year parade, one he has attended since he was a kid. It is one of the largest outside Asia and is also virtual this year.
Every year, the parade features the Miss Chinatown contestants. In 2007, Jamie Lam was the representative from Houston and actually met her husband there. He was assigned as her escort for the pageant, and now they have three little girls together.
It was extra special, Lam said, to walk down the historic streets of one of the oldest Chinatowns, one that has been especially ravaged by the pandemic. Now, she hopes to pass down the Chinese New Year traditions to her daughters, “to be proud of wearing a Chinese dress versus embarrassed to be Chinese.”
This is even more important now as anti-Asian attacks have increased since the pandemic because the community has been blamed for the coronavirus. Chinese restaurants have been hit especially hard because some customers have boycotted Chinatowns.
For freelance food writer Carolyn Jung in San Jose, this means going out of her way to order from local Chinese restaurants and ordering a lot to show her support during the holiday.
And for Amy Leang, a photojournalist from Indiana and Michigan who now lives in Lyon, France, this also means continuing to celebrate with her family despite the pandemic.
“It’s one of the few tenable ways in which I can express Chinese culture and therefore pride. Right now, more than ever, I want my children to feel proud of their heritage, especially in a Western world that wants them to feel shame of who they are, what they look like, blame them for covid,” said Leang, who plans to book an online Airbnb experience with a Chinese tour guide to talk about the Great Wall and the holiday. “This is a chance, each year, for me to remind them and me about why being Chinese is special.”
Besides, it’ll be the Year of the Ox, an animal known for its strength, a trait we will all need to get through the ongoing pandemic. And maybe by the next holiday, we’ll all be flying home again, making dumplings and feasting together.
Travel during the pandemic: