CRISTINA PEDLER AND AIDAN SMITH-FAGAN WRITE – On a sunny Tuesday morning, Kelly Lu sets out red paper gift bags and envelopes on a table along the Palm Walk at LMU. “We prepared hongbao because it’s the year of the tiger,” she says, pointing out a small cartoon tiger printed on the red envelopes traditionally given out during Lunar New Year. It’s February first, the first day of Lunar New Year and Lu is here with the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), where she serves as Vice President.
Usually, Lu would be back in Sichuan province, seeing her extended family. “They will cook, like, really good food,” Lu says, recalling the meals her family eats together each year. “That’s the thing I probably miss most.” LMU’s winter break ends before Lunar New Year, and COVID has made it even harder to see family and celebrate. “They were telling me that they still feel lonely if I’m not there,” she says.
But CSSA has helped Lu and others maintain some of the spirit of connectedness normally felt during Lunar New Year. “It provides a chance for you to meet other people,” Lu says, remembering the friends she’s made through CSSA and crediting the club for collaborating with other Chinese cultural organizations at LMU. CSSA and its partner organizations also help “to promote Chinese culture to the community,” according to Lu.
CSSA wasn’t the only campus club celebrating the holiday. Loyola Marymount University’s celebration of Lunar New Year included 18 Asian and Pacific vendors, student clubs, and a live performance during the weekly Wellness Wednesday market on Alumni Mall.
Jade Kinomoto ‘22, a program assistant for the office of Asian Pacific Student Services at LMU, helped to revamp the celebration from its modest campus origins. As an Asian-American of Chinese and Japanese heritage, she was passionate about her vision for a more focused celebration than in years past: “Rather than piggybacking off of the basketball halftime show like before, we decided to host the celebration during Wellness Wednesday to host Asian vendors and highlight Asian Pacific student clubs on campus.” And by hosting the celebration during peak traffic hours of 11am-2pm, Jade enabled LMU students to live up to the mission of global citizenry.
Jessie Lee, a Fullbright foreign language teaching assistant from Taiwan, found a community of undergrad students so fascinated with Chinese culture that she started a mah-jongg club. An ancient Chinese tile-piece game of strategy, mah-jongg has been adopted enthusiastically by LMU students. “The first time our group met,” she explains, “they didn’t know anything about mah-jongg, but in just one hour they learned to play it in Chinese!”
No wonder faculty and staff, as well as students, are so pleased by, quite literally, this turn of events. Says Father Martin, S.J: “It’s such a nice thing to see an awareness in some kind of Asian country celebration.” Father Martin, a Jesuit priest and campus minister, noted the different intensity in his parents’ native Vietnam versus this burgeoning event in Los Angeles: back home, stores can shut down for up to a week because celebrations of Lunar New Year are, truthfully, a really big deal.
It’s not just the extent, or size, of the party that counts. Imagine this: Families in Asia observe Lunar New Year with house-cleaning rituals known as da sao chu. Days before the new year, families purge their homes, scrubbing and sweeping until all bad luck has been expelled from every corner of the house. Once the new year begins, they refrain from cleaning again for up to a week, depending on the level of commitment to tradition. The things that accumulate over those days symbolize the wealth that has entered the house since the beginning of the new year. Dust bunnies bring good luck!?
Father Martin remembers a time growing up when the holiday was referred to, simply, as “Chinese New Year.” But the past 20 years have seen a push to a more inclusive and universal title for the holiday. Now, the term “Lunar New Year” recognizes the proliferation of celebrations in countries outside of China as well. Father Martin added that he had long held “hopes that it would be kind of a US holiday at some point.”
Although the new year celebration originated in China, it has spread to other Asian countries- there’s debate as to what the appropriate nomenclature should be. Dr. Edward Park, professor and chair of the department of Asian and Asian American Studies at LMU, sheds light on the naming issue: “I think that gives us an occasion for not just kind of arguing over this terminology but to think more deeply about how Asian cultures have changed through politics over time and manifest themselves in America and in Asia in multiple and interesting ways.” For example, perhaps campus celebrations can serve as a gateway to serious learning, discussion, and debate over Lunar New Year’s history and significance.
But to CSSA’s Kelly Lu, the presence of cultural organizations is about more than learning facts and details of Lunar New Year. For her, it’s a way to “dispel stereotypes” and foster community. “It’s not only about Lunar New Year…it’s a way to communicate with a real Chinese person,” she says. According to Lu, when it comes to building bridges between LMU students, “it’s better to have people communicate directly with each other.” In the end, it’s that interpersonal dialogue and human connection that helps students like Lu keep the spirit of Lunar New Year alive, even thousands of miles away from home.
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