Chinese New Year Away From Home

By Colette Au

Chinese New Year, arguably the most important event in the Chinese calendar, is a momentous occasion in Chinese culture. As an American-born Chinese (ABC), I have celebrated this tradition for as long as I can remember. We feasted on steamed fish garnished with green onions and ginger slices, and New Year’s cake: a steamed, chewy sweet made from glutinous rice flour, slab sugar, and water. At night, my parents would leave the lights in our house on. Perhaps a long time ago, superstitions dictated that the house should be lit to guide the gods of good luck and prosperity, but now the tradition persists as the lore has faded away. For me, celebrating Chinese New Year has always been about eating together with my family. Receiving red packets with crisp dollar bills inside is an added perk, but after leaving home and moving to USC, I miss the familiar foods we used to celebrate the new year.

The start of the year of the rooster fell on January 28th this year, marking the second time I have not done anything to celebrate. As is customary, I called my parents to wish them a happy new year, along with luck, prosperity, and good health. “Are you going to celebrate and have a Chinese dinner with your friends?” they asked. I shook my head. A semester of apartment living and cooking was not enough to sharpen my culinary skills enough to steam an entire fish, and I had none of the ingredients required for any of the traditional dishes. I told them I had some frozen potstickers from Sprouts in the freezer, and I might fry some of those up.

Not celebrating these festivals feels strange — a loss of distinct markers that signify the passing of time and the cyclical nature of years. As an out-of-state college student constantly running between classes, clubs, work, and my apartment, it is a struggle to retain the Chinese half of my dual heritage. Living apart from my family and their traditions requires a cultural as well as geographical transition. Luckily, my mom was kind enough to make three dishes — a New Year’s cake, turnip cake, and water chestnut cake — and mail them to me at my college address. My childhood home doesn’t seem so far away, and I am so grateful for a few days when I can eat home-cooked food without preparing it myself. But most importantly, I can remain attached to my cultural roots despite moving a thousand miles away. For some, home is much further away, but the fact remains: with the bits of home that make their way to us, we make do.

Featured image by Patrick Kwan on Flickr

Originally from Portland, Oregon, Colette is a sophomore in the Leventhal School of Accounting. Born to immigrant parents from mainland China and Hong Kong, she is no stranger to bridging lingual and cultural gaps. As her high school offered an international boarding program, she made friends with classmates from all over the world. At USC, Colette participates in several service-oriented clubs on campus, including Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Project 32 Tutoring. Singing, playing piano and guitar, and eating all kinds of foods (especially dessert) are some of her favorite hobbies.