Celebrating heritage away from home

RESIDENTS WATCH a traditional Lunar New Year presentation take place through the streets of Chinatown, NYC.

As the clock struck twelve on Monday night, I found myself sitting at my desk, and it dawned on me—before then, it never really struck me quite so hard—that I wasn’t home. Being at RPI has always been different from being at home, sure, but life went on. It wasn’t until the Lunar New Year had quietly come and gone that I had the distinct realization that I’m in a very different place with different people; in the past, I would be home with my family, celebrating the widespread holiday in our own little way. I’m Asian American, and despite being long separated from the lifestyle of my relatives in Taiwan, I have fairly traditional parents. I grew up asking them every question I had about Taiwanese and Chinese culture, leaving the lingering question of how I’d ever come to understand and preserve the culture of my lineage as my parents have.

My family only ever celebrated one night of the Lunar New Year due to the restrictions of the American calendar. However, that one night of celebration still calls for hefty preparation, we would busy ourselves with spring cleaning, firecrackers and snappers, watching lion and dragon dances at the local cultural festival, and making the most important thing of all: food.

My parents would spend hours preparing things such as rice cakes, orange slices, and other foods that are representative of prosperity. Before we actually ate, we would present every item of the meal as an offering at our ancestors’ altar table, and pay our respects as a family. Even the smell of the altar incense is nostalgic; I was in charge of offering fresh incense and tea at the altar every day. Usually, the focus was a hot pot, which is a boiling pot that you throw raw ingredients into to cook and eat—my family eats it with shacha sauce, which is the bomb dot com—it was always great in the moment, but I also always got sick of it in the following days, as my parents tested how long they could get away with this low maintenance meal plan. Afterwards, we would stay up as late as we could, since it’s superstition that the longer you do, the longer your parents will live. As a reward, we would finally receive red envelopes with the largest allowances of the year. Unfortunately, I don’t really have relatives in the country, so I always had to make do with stories from my friends about how ridiculously much their grandparents, aunts, and uncles would put in their red envelopes.

Since my family was never extremely involved in the Taiwanese American and Chinese American communities, our celebrations were understandably less boisterous than other families’. Still, Lunar New Year is one of the few points that truly differentiates life home and here. Thanksgiving was celebrated in various ways on campus, Christmas is always filled with cheer, and there is even some excitement from school spirit at sports games, but celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year is inevitably missing here at RPI; this is the first year I’m not celebrating it in any way.

I am somewhat at fault, since I haven’t made any particular effort to connect with the Asian American community. They may have had an event that I didn’t know about. At the same time, other cultures use the lunar calendar and celebrate the Lunar New Year in ways that I don’t know about either. In the end, even if those festivities are not the same, everyone can still seize the opportunity, and the lack of any full-fledged celebrations on campus, to appreciate and connect with all the cultures that bring diversity to this school.