What 2023’s Lunar New Year tells us about cultural apathy

By Anna Yang, Assistant Editor

Payton features a Lunar New Year display on the first floor language hallway. The Chinese characters spell out “Happy New Year!”

Lunar New Year passed quietly at Payton this year. The Chinese classes decorated a bulletin board, the Cantonese club made tang yuan (sweet rice ball desserts), and the National Chinese Honor Society did a small activity with hong bao (traditional red envelopes). All together, it was easy for the majority of the student body to overlook the holiday entirely, a trend that has become more glaring in past years.

Cultural holidays have always tended to fly under the radar at many American schools, but while other occasions like Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa have gained more recognition at Payton over the years, Lunar New Year remains as unnoticeable as ever. This apparent lack of excitement begs the question: Are Asian American adolescents growing more apathetic and disconnected from their roots and culture?

To answer that, let’s take a closer look at the Payton community’s celebration of Lunar New Year.

Chinese New Year is the more widely known term for Lunar New Year in America, but it is also misleading. Taiwan, China, Vietnam, and South Korea all celebrate Lunar New Year, while Japan does not. As the name suggests, Lunar New Year is based on a lunisolar calendar cycle, as opposed to the Gregorian calendar system, which is a solar calendar. 2023 is the Year of the Rabbit for most celebrating Asian countries excluding Vietnam, where it is the Year of the Cat.

The New Year on the lunar calendar starts on January 22 in 2023 and lasts two weeks, ending on February 5th. An apt comparison to how seriously East Asian countries take Lunar New Year is how Americans celebrate Christmas and the Gregorian New Year: decorations everywhere, declarations of national holidays, and an emphasis on food and family. The fourteen-day celebration of Lunar New Year often includes family banquets, parades, lion and dragon dances, and firecracker or fireworks spectacles overseas. All factories and workplaces close and employees go on holiday for at least two weeks, allowing them time to travel back home and celebrate in large family gatherings. Red envelopes are given, sacrifices are offered, couplets are hung, and incense and red lanterns are lit.

At Payton, however, celebrations are much more subdued.

Among a small anonymous sample of East Asian American Payton students, every student stated they celebrated Lunar New Year. Nearly all celebrations featured small gatherings of immediate family and cooking traditional foods such as tang yuan and chun juan. Some students received red envelopes with money from senior family members or friends. One student even took part in a traditional ceremony of bowing to their ancestors, complete with the lighting of incense. All students acknowledged Lunar New Year to some extent, even if it was simply saying a “Happy New Year!” in the hallways.

Compared to celebrations at East Asian schools, mere acknowledgement certainly seems much more apathetic. While Asian countries that celebrate the Lunar New Year give students two weeks off from school, most students at Payton only celebrate the first day, dismissing 13 out of 14 days of the holiday.

The small size of the celebrations, however, doesn’t diminish from how seriously students take them. When asked if they would continue these cultural traditions after becoming adults and moving away from their immediate family, all students stated they would continue to celebrate Lunar New Year. “Even if it’s something small, like cooking tang yuan for myself, I’ll celebrate,” one senior expressed. 

Most students felt that their parents had taught them to celebrate Lunar New Year as part of their culture, and they would like to keep the tradition. “I might go back to China [to see family] for Lunar New Year,” one junior commented. Another senior took it one step further: “If I have kids, I will definitely teach them to celebrate. I don’t know if I will, but I think it’s important if I have a family.” 

When asked if they felt it was culturally important for Asian Americans to celebrate New Year, students adopted a more individualistic stance. “It depends on the person,” one junior explained. “For me, I grew up with my parents celebrating Lunar New Year, so I also celebrate it. But for people whose parents don’t observe the Lunar New Year, like second or third-generation immigrants, they shouldn’t have to celebrate.” The person-to-person basis resonated with another student, who said they liked “thinking about culture as more personal, rather than a societal thing.”

Another perspective came from a junior who agreed with the stance of participation being “up to the individual”, but couldn’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to celebrate voluntarily, declaring “Any excuse for a party!” Their opinion was echoed by their peers: while Asian Americans shouldn’t feel pressured to celebrate because of cultural reasons, celebrating Lunar New Year is fun, festive, and connects them with family, all motives that young East Asian Americans relate to.

This shift in adolescent East and Southeast Asian American attitudes serves to demonstrate the growth of diaspora community growth. East Asian Americans are now creating their own culture, originating from traditional practices, but with a different approach to their heritage and different motives behind continuing customs. Rather than cultural apathy, more minimized observance simply signals the creation of a novel diaspora society. 

Moving away from the deep-rooted East Asian culture that stretches back centuries of course means dropping more extensive traditions, including the two-week long celebration of Lunar New Year that is much more difficult in a Western society. But that doesn’t mean students want to abandon their culture. On the contrary, many make a conscious effort to keep family traditions alive, and will continue to do so at Payton and outside of it. As long as students continue their status quo, there seems to be no reason to be concerned for the future of Asian American culture. 

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