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Chinatown, Manhattan. That’s pretty much where I grew up. It’s bombarded with all types of people. The elderly people who love to take their morning strolls and stretch their aged bodies on the monkey bars in Columbus Park. The women and men of varying ages elongating their lives through practicing tai-chi in the basketball courts. The wide-eyed tourist, amazed from all the culture they’re absorbing through their eyes, bargaining for a cheaper price on the fake Gucci bags and the Prada sunglasses, all while exploring the new flavors of authentic Asian foods laid on their taste buds. Then, when three p.m. strikes, young children run to the school gates where clusters of grandparents anxiously await for their release. The streets are filled with noise: the honking of speeding yellow taxi cabs, kids playing tag, the elderly gossiping about how smart their grandchildren are, the clicking of Chinese chess pieces hitting against each other, the ringing of domino pieces being stacked together, the music of the old men playing their Chinese violins while humming the lyrics of their youth, and many other sounds that add to the experience of Chinatown.
Chinatown is packed with different restaurants filled with all various kinds of delectable foods. Streets bordered by store after store of gift shops. There’s at least two banks on every block, and every street has its own smell, some more pleasant than others. No matter how diverse this community can become all its members and the members of neighboring boroughs come together on several days throughout the year to celebrate and participate in the festivities of Chinese New Year.
Gung Hay Fat Choy! It translates to Happy New Year. Chinese New Year, or sometimes called Lunar New Year, because it follows the lunar calendar, is a very special celebration in the Chinatown community. In China, all fifteen days of this holiday are celebrated. It is a time of festivities, new beginnings and delicious foods. It is a celebration everyone young and old looks forward to. It is a time of bringing family together to wish one another longevity, prosperity, good health, and everything else good. The most common and formal way to wish one a happy new year, is to offer a red envelope. A red envelope, or hong bao or lai see, depending on which dialect is spoken, is simply a red envelope that contains money. The envelopes are traditionally decorated with Chinese characters representing wealth or health printed in gold. Each year is assigned a Chinese zodiac animal, so the red envelopes are sometimes decorated with either an artistic piece of the animal printed in gold or in a cartoon version. Other variations of the red envelopes include cartoon characters and of Confucius. Red envelopes are not only given on Chinese New Year but for many other holidays and events as well, such as: birthdays, weddings, going away, good luck, be safe, and many others. Every family celebrates in a different way, with some general rules.
In my family, we start preparing about a month before New Year’s Day. We all go out to the mall to shop for a new outfit from head to toe to start off the new year. As we shop, we’re encouraged to keep a simple rule in mind; your outfit must contain some portion of red. Red is a lucky color to the Chinese. It is a color that resembles good luck, good fortune, and good health. After we get our outfits, we proceed to prepare ourselves more by making a trip to the salon to get our hair cut. After we are done preparing ourselves for this big event, we start our spring cleaning early. We have to wash our laundry, vacuum the carpet, mop every square inch of the house, clean the bathrooms, and many other tedious tasks until the house is sparkling clean, or at least close to it. When all this has been completed, we are asked to help start prepare for the event. We are asked to fold these colorful thin pieces of paper that are to be burned for the dead and to our Gods. These papers resemble the festivities of Chinese New Year, thus the colorfulness of them. They’re burned for the dead and to our Gods so they can celebrate in their heavens as well, and in a sense to welcome them to join us in our festivities. Lastly, all that is left, is to go shopping for the foods that we are to prepare for the next several days. Chicken is a very essential dish that is prepared for Chinese New Year. Chicken represents wealth because in the olden days, only the wealthy were able to afford this “luxury.”
On New Year’s Eve, we begin the ceremony. After all plates of food have been cooked, we bring the plates upstairs to the second floor of my house carefully one at a time to where we can offer our Gods and our passed loved ones the joys and thankfulness of a new year. With the plates of food, rice, and wine placed before the Gods’ statue, we burn the colored papers that also represent fortune and happiness to them. After the burning ceremony, we bring the food back downstairs where we then feast on the foods. We must sit down as a family to enjoy the meal. If a member of the family is unable to join the rest of the family in celebration, a spot on the table is reserved for them. The table is prepared by laying a set of chopsticks in between the plates, as a representation for each member of the family.
On New Year’s day, we all have to wake up early so that we can prepare brunch. The table is set up in the same manner as New Year’s eve, with the difference of the foods that are prepared. For the first meal of Chinese New Year, we are forbidden to have any type of meat. All the plates that we prepare are vegan. During this meal, everyone at the table must partake in having a taste of liquor or Tsingtao, a Chinese beer, which represents longevity. After we feast on this meal, we all head out to Chinatown, Manhattan to join in on the festivities of the New Year. We all gather around to wherever the dragon and lion dances are. Once you arrive, there’s no need to fear not knowing where to go, you won’t miss it, you really can’t.
We watch the dances and the performances all day long. The colorful colors of the dragons, the confetti that fill the skies, and of course all the people there to support the event. Eventually after standing in enormous crowds throughout the day, we finally make our way to my grandmother’s apartment, where we pay our respects to her and to see my father’s brother and his family. We sit and chatter and exchange red envelopes for a healthy amount of time. We stay until it is time for us to drive back to our house to start preparing for dinner, another big meal. For this meal, it is vital to have chicken, it is the main dish and everyone must have a piece.
Chinese New Year is a very big and special event. It is held in many areas across the United States and in many other areas where there are big Asian communities, usually in the Chinatowns of the area. In Chinatown, Manhattan, in New York City, the festivities don’t just end after one day, they continue on for the next fifteen days, typically on the preceding weekends. Although we may not celebrate as heavily as they do in China and Hong Kong, I would say, we do a pretty good job here in the States. If you miss the big dragon dance performance on New Year’s day itself, don’t fret, there are many more to come within the following two weeks.
Although the Chinese New Year tradition still lives on, it has slowly began to diminish in my family. While we have celebrated Chinese New Year in my family, my parents are not as traditional as some people in my neighborhood. When my grandparents were still alive, my parents didn’t pay much mind to preparing for the event nor did they follow closely to the more proper traditional way to pay respect to the dead and to our Gods because they were too busy being involved in running their business.
My family’s tradition of traveling to Chinatown, Manhattan halted when my second sister left for college. Since I’ve been away from home for three years and counting, I have not been able to celebrate and be a part of the festivities. I’m not even sure of what happens at home when Chinese New Year arrives. While Chinese New Year is still important to me, I do not celebrate it as much as I celebrate the New Year on January 1st.
Coming from a family of three girls, my second sister and I have branched away from participating in the traditions of the Chinese. We slowly drifted away from even considering keeping many of the traditions we experienced as children. We have fallen victim to melting into America’s melting pot. Although we may not do everything how typical Americans do things, we are classified as being Americanized. To many typical Americans, we may have to sense of becoming more and more Americanized but still carry some mannerisms of the Chinese.
The eldest child in my family follows extremely close to Chinese tradition. She typically is the one to prepare the house and the foods for many of the Chinese holidays. She even seems to be more traditional than my parents are. My parents have a difficult time grasping the idea of my second sister and me moving away from the family and the traditions. We may have taken part and experienced some of the Chinese traditions but it was never really enforced upon us as we were growing up. Growing up and being able to experience independent living and exposing myself to the world, I can now clearly see that my parents have exceedingly sheltered me. As we grow older and they see that my second sister and I are branching away, they have become more and more traditional, trying their best to enforce tradition on us with the last bit of chances they get.
I don’t follow closely, or at all, to Chinese traditions or to family traditions because I don’t agree with many of the ways they do things or how they think. I have a different mindset from what they want me to believe and do. I do admit that I do carry some mannerisms of the Chinese.