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Food, family and community bring Tufts students together to celebrate the Lunar New Year

The Tufts Daily

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Tufts students are pictured playing mahjong during a TAST event on Feb. 1.Courtesy Jason Wu

By Abby Stern

Many Tufts students celebrated the start of the Lunar New Year on Feb. 1, alongside many other Asian countries and cultures around the world.

Though not everyone in these countries celebrates the Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, many communities have adopted their own traditions. At Tufts, many students observe this holiday and celebrate based on their own unique cultural backgrounds and experiences.

Each given year typically starts with the first new moon and is associated with one of the 12 zodiac animals in the Chinese calendar. The Year of the Tiger will represent 2022.

Though some may recognize this holiday as “Chinese New Year,” many are opting to call the holiday “Lunar New Year” instead in order to acknowledge the celebration’s ties to the lunar calendar and to promote inclusivity among the different participating countries. 

One such person is Elysia Chang, a junior and Malaysian American who grew up in Singapore. She is the president of the Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia Students Association. 

“Lunar New Year is celebrated all across Asia in so many different countries so the term Chinese New Year is only inclusive of a very small, select population,” Chang said. 

Chang celebrates Lunar New Year with traditions unique to her Malaysian heritage. When not at Tufts, Chang would celebrate the holiday with her extended family by eating a holiday meal, playing games and putting on plays to act out ancient stories. According to Chang, food plays a big role in the holiday and many traditions revolve around items on the table. 

For example, Chang traditionally eats Lo Hei, a meal made up of many different ingredients that each hold their own specific meaning. Chang explains that each ingredient is tossed into the air and the higher the food is tossed, the more good luck will be brought into the Lunar New Year.

Chang’s family also celebrate using firecrackers based on the story of Nian, a monster that would terrorize villages at the beginning of the Lunar New Year. According to the legend, the secret to scaring away the monster was to make loud noises and to wear the color red.

At Tufts, Chang finds ways to celebrate the holiday with other members of SIMSA.

“In previous years, we’ve always done it where we’ll gather on campus or off campus at a restaurant, and we try to encompass the Lo Hei aspect of it because that’s a super big part of Lunar New Year celebrations,” Chang said.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, SIMSA decided instead to host an afternoon of games, a major component of many Lunar New Year celebrations.

According to Chang, elders in the community will typically be toasted to wish them good health and in exchange, they will hand out red packets with money on Lunar New Year.

“That money is supposed to be good luck for the new year,” Chang said.

Other cultural organizations at Tufts also have celebrations for Lunar New Year. The Taiwanese Association of Students at Tufts put on a holiday event on Feb. 1 that doubled as both a night of celebration and a general interest meeting. 

Katrina Ho, a junior, is one of the co-presidents of TAST. She explained that TAST’s event had the capacity to recreate the experience of a typical Lunar New Year holiday for those who celebrate it, as well as introduce the holiday to those who may not. 

As a Taiwanese American, Ho has her own holiday traditions with her family. She often plays Mahjong and dice games, and looks forward to her own red envelopes as well.

Hot pot is a traditional food Ho eats on Lunar New Year, in addition to a Taiwanese street food dish called run bing.

“Sweets are also a large part of Chinese New Year, at least in our family. There’s a lot of traditional snacks that you can typically only get during the weeks building up to the Lunar New Year,”Ho said.

To Ho, Lunar New Year marks the start of new beginnings. 

“At least in Taiwan, and in a lot of families, usually the day leading up to New Year’s we do a big clean up. It’s just to symbolize … leaving the negative things in the past,” Ho said.

There are many other ways students at Tufts celebrate Lunar New Year. First-year Hannah Wang is of Chinese descent, and she typically engages in her own family traditions when she can. 

“My family and I would have a lot of traditions usually around this time, just because it’s already hard celebrating it in America and being away from China. But even so, we try to do as much as we can and keep as many of the traditions alive as possible,” Wang said.

On the eve of Chinese New Year, Wang explains that her family makes a huge holiday dinner which includes noodles, fish, rice cakes and other traditional Chinese foods. According to Wang, there is a superstition that if there is leftover food after the holiday, you will have prosperity and enough food for the upcoming year. 

Wang’s family also watches the Spring Festival Gala together, which is livestreamed from China and includes a variety of arts performances. 

For Wang’s first year celebrating away from home, she plans to spend the day with friends, some of whom she has met through the Chinese Students Association and a Chinese class she has taken. Wang said she was able to get together with her friends on campus to wrap dumplings.

“Dumplings and noodles I think are the most popular and easy for college students to recreate on campus, just because it’s not super expensive and they store very well. You can eat them for many nights,” Wang said.

The Tufts Asian American Center is also planning an event to tap into the energy that surrounds the new year. 

Emily Ding, the assistant director of the Asian American Center, has been working on a collaboration with the SMFA in order to showcase Asian American artists and artwork. 

The “Return and Renewal” art show will launch today and will be displayed in the SMFA Terrace Gallery throughout the rest of February.

According to Ding, this joint art gallery is not explicitly in honor of the Lunar New Year, since the AAC aims to be inclusive of all Asian and Asian American students, given the myriad of other cultures and traditions celebrated in Asia. 

“Only a pocket of our community celebrates this holiday,” Ding said. “Which is why [the AAC doesn’t] necessarily always want to go all out for Lunar New Year and then not recognize any of the other holidays that many people celebrate throughout the year.”

Therefore, instead of making the event explicitly linked to the holiday, the gallery event aims to encourage Asian American pride while playing off of the liveliness of the festive time of year.

“We kind of just wanted to capture this kind of energy and also bring our community together,” Ding said.

Although there are many cultural differences when celebrating Lunar New Year, family is often the link among all of these traditions.

“I think the commonality oftentimes is family time or community time … so we’re just trying to capture that community energy here at the AAC this year,” Ding said.

Wang noted that the most important part of Lunar New Year is spending time with those close to her and those who understand the holiday’s importance.

“In the U.S. it’s not … a national holiday or anything like that. So just being with the people who understand the cultural importance of New Year’s, I think that’s the most important,” Wang said.

Though many students cannot spend the holiday with their families this year, they have found comfort in fellow members of the Tufts community.

“I would definitely say that SIMSA has been a home away from home for me. And [it has] been ever since freshman year. Like, when I got really homesick, I would come to this community,” Chang said.

Wang is grateful for the community she has found at Tufts as well.

“I feel like at Tufts, I really do have a little small community,”Wang said. “Which I really like, especially as we approach the New Year.”

Though not all could be interviewed, other student organizations on campus, such as the Vietnamese Student Club, Hong Kong Students Association and Korean Students Association may also participate in the Lunar New Year.

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