An illustration of two people sharing a plate of dumplings, one of whom through a Zoom screen on a laptop

Celebrating Lunar New Year when you’re separated by Covid

Braised Pork author An Yu and her family have never gone in for grand Lunar New Year celebrations. As the Year of the Rat becomes the Year of the Ox, she explains how that's helped to prepare her for a pandemic-era new year.

An Yu

This piece was originally published in February 2021.

For me, it’s not and has never been easy to feel festive at this time of the year. It’s been a while since I last celebrated Lunar New Year with my mother and grandmother, mainly for the reason that I lived too far – in New York, and then Paris – with too little time for the long flights home.

This year, it’s even harder, and not just for me, but for all of us who celebrate this holiday. Living in 2021, together with its border restrictions, quarantines, Covid tests, and general pressure to avoid travel and gathering, it feels as though a set of walls have been mounted between us and the usual festivities. In most parts of the world, there won’t be many large families gathering around tables of food. There won’t be fireworks, parades, temple fairs. Visits to relatives might be hurried, or even cancelled. Yesterday, I saw someone spray alcohol onto a red envelope she received. Daily life seems to have so much focus on not touching each other. The coronavirus is something like the antithesis to a holiday like New Year, and it is beginning to feel like this February might be just another month in the pandemic.

I have a small family. It hasn’t always been this way, but most relatives seemed to have trickled out of our lives when I was at a young age. I can’t quite point to a reason. That’s just how things happened. Growing up, my grandmother was never one to care for holidays and, in my experience, celebrations were often contingent on the enthusiasm of the elders and the children of the family. Thus, ever since I grew out of childhood, we haven’t really celebrated Lunar New Year (although we did make sure to eat dumplings every year). We reasoned that since we spent every day under the same roof, there was nothing particularly special about the new year. Nobody was coming home from afar. Later on, as I mentioned, when I became the one who was away, I couldn’t find the time to return.

'It is said that the Year of the Rat, which is coming to a close, is a turbulent one'

Time passed the way it does – ceaselessly and softly – and, thanks to messaging apps, I’m able to chat with my mother every day now. My grandmother has become too old, so I call her a few times a month. When you get to her age, holidays either feel a great deal more important or entirely trivial. She, unsurprisingly, has ended up with the latter attitude. As a result, up until this year, I’d believed that it didn’t matter whether we celebrated or not. Of course, we sent one another new year’s wishes and made sure to call, but the reality was that the calls felt like they could’ve been made on any ordinary day.

It is said that the Year of the Rat, which is coming to a close, is a turbulent one. This belief came to be as a result of there being several significant events in the history of China that have all happened in the Year of the Rat. To name a few, in the year 208, Cao Cao’s invasion of Jing led up to the Battle of the Red Cliffs; in 1840, the First Opium War started; and, more recently, in 2008, the Sichuan Earthquake killed more thank 80,000 people and injured many more.

Whether the superstition around the Year of the Rat is a truth or a myth is not for me to say, but 2020 has undoubtedly been a chaotic one so I, too, am looking forward to the new year. For the first time, I’ve decided to celebrate the holiday despite still being away from my family. A week ago, I put up lanterns at home, wrote couplets for my door, and bought a kumquat tree for my living room.   

'Looking at my life up until now, I’m starting to realise that celebrations of family can happen any day'

Besides the fact that my apartment looks a bit redder than usual, it may seem like this year will not be so different for me. On 12 February, I’ll video chat my mother and call my grandmother. I’ll send a few text messages to my friends. Maybe I’ll eat some dumplings at home.

While all of this may be true and I won’t be doing much out of the ordinary, to me, this year is different. It feels different. It means something different. Part of that is because it’ll be different for everyone. When I think of Lunar New Year, what comes to mind are explosions of voices, music, fireworks, and joy, even though it has always been quiet for our family. But there was something important in knowing that others were celebrating – something contagious and memorable that has stayed in my subconscious. This year, amidst such unusual times, I keep wondering whether we will likely be skipping the holiday entirely.

The answer, I’d like to think, is no. Looking at my life up until now, I’m starting to realise that celebrations of family can happen any day. Sometimes, it is spontaneous, where a moment in an otherwise normal conversation can suddenly overflow with love and joy. Other times, it is very much intentional, so much so that we strain to make time for each other. With this realization comes the acknowledgement that, for my family, the explosion of joy has always been dispersed into smaller sparks throughout our daily lives.

In many ways, Lunar New Year in 2021, stripped of its countless traditions (most of which I’ve never been aware of anyway) is more significant than ever, as it makes space for the essence of the holiday, which is a reminder of the love we already give every day.

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Image: Janice Chang/Studio PI for Penguin

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