How I Spent Lunar New Year By Myself

 “Xin Nian Kuai Le!” my grandmother (“Ah-ma” in Taiwanese) said ecstatically, wishing me a happy new year. My grandfather (“Ah-gong" in Taiwanese) poked his head into the frame.

“Can you see me?” he asked, and I nodded. Even though the video call quality was not at its best, I could still see my little cousins chasing each other around in the background, the table covered with delicacies and the walls dotted in red, covered with Chinese calligraphy posters of wishes for the New Year. It was what I had always wished for Lunar New Year. It looked like the picture-perfect version of Lunar New Year I had watched growing up, the kind they put in commercials on televisions, and now they were also on my cousins’ Instagram stories.

Lunar New Year gave me the opportunity to have a second shot of a fresh start every year, and it is just what a person needs to push them through the year.

Last year, I penned the piece "How It Feels to Be 18 during Chinese New Year", detailing my annual experiences with my family during Lunar New Year. At the time, it was a holiday I almost dreaded going to because I knew the pressure and confrontation that was going to coexist with the holiday spirits. However, when Lunar New Year rolled around this year, I longed to be able to go back home again, even though I had just spent Christmas home.

It was over Christmas that I realized how out of touch I had become with my own culture. After hearing me stutter my way through a conversation about the weather with my Ah-ma , my mother (“Ma” in Mandarin) broke into the conversation, sighing.

“How can your Mandarin possibly be this bad?” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “Have you just not spoken it for the past five months?”

Her disbelief was righteous. My opportunities to speak Mandarin here are close to none, and the only times I actually speak it are when I go to a local Chinese restaurant. There is a lack of people of color already—needless to say, there are even less people that spoke the same language as me, and I have yet to meet someone who is from the same country as me. So when Lunar New Year rolled around, I didn’t know how or who to celebrate it with. I had limited contact with my own culture, to the point that a serving of bubble tea was enough to cure my homesickness.

When I asked my friends who also moved abroad for college, a lot of them found comfort at their respective colleges in Asian or Taiwanese communities, people who understood their cultural backgrounds and were able to support them through the late-night hours when they were homesick. It was something I found missing in my college experience. I never realized the importance of having a community that was my own race and shared the same worries and woes with me. Now I realized, it was something I so desperately needed and something I realized I had taken for granted for all of these years.

Having lived away from Taiwan for the majority of my life due to my father’s expatriate working conditions, Lunar New Year was one of the few times in a year that I was able to see my family. However, I was still pushing through months away from home with the support of my Taiwanese friends and family, the ones that would always urge us to get together to celebrate traditional Taiwanese holidays. From mid-autumn festival, Qingming festival to the dragon festivals, these days represented values of being together with your family and the importance of such. The habitual celebration of these holidays had made days like these with the absence of family and friends feel bare and blue. Celebrating Lunar New Year alone to me was like how celebrating Christmas alone may feel to others. On a day that is supposed to be about traditions and family, celebrating it alone feels extra secluded.

When I moved abroad for college, the 5870-mile distance felt unreal. Unlike the majority of my classmates who lived within the Schengen area that drove and flew home on the weekends, I was counting down the days until summer break (134 days, to be exact) when I could finally see my family again—and before then, all we had were phone calls and texts.

That day, I made myself my favorite Mala noodles and called my Ma. When she picked up, she had just gotten back from my grandparent’s after a day-long festivities.

“We missed you,” she said, yawning. I could see her stretching out on the living room couch. 

“I wish I could’ve been here. This is the first time I’ve ever missed out on Lunar New Year.” 

“You didn’t miss out much; your aunties didn’t have anyone to pick on this year,” she joked.

"I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I kind of even missed that.”

As I slurped on my noodles, my Ma went on to catch me up on the festivities, the different voices she made for different family members and the descriptive accounts of every incident that happened throughout the day. She was trying her best to make it feel like I was there with everyone.

“Next year, we’ll figure something out for the whole family to celebrate it together, I promise,” she assured me. “I know you miss your brother. If you don’t see him soon enough, you might forget what he looks like.”

We laughed. She always knew how to cheer me up.

I know I spent Lunar New Year by myself this year, and in all honesty, it turned out better than I imagined. I wanted to be home for Lunar New Year, but having my family to keep me filled in on everything happening, I felt like I was there, and I didn’t feel so alone. Even though I may not be around physically. Traditions are often lost in translation—especially in generations, when everyone moves away from each other—but what is important are the sentiments and people that hold the traditions together.

Happy Lunar New Year. 

By Wen Hsiao

Writer’s Note: The phrase “Lunar New Year” was used instead of “Chinese New Year” in my article to be more inclusive to those who don’t identify as Chinese and/or are only ethnically Chinese, like myself, as Lunar New Year is celebrated across many countries and cultures.

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