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Celebrating Chinese New Year When No One Else Is

Photograph by Getty Images

Happy New Year! I'm not a month late; on February 10th my family will be welcoming in the Year of the Snake. While I love the Lunar New Year (after all, it's not just Chinese who celebrate, but Koreans, Vietnamese and many other Asians), it's not always easy to have a holiday when most people around you don't.

In the American psyche, January and February are not generally festive times. They are months to tighten our belts, lock down our spending and clean our closets. No wonder we get the winter blues. For families, celebrating the Lunar New Year can get lost in the midst of science fair projects, pinewood derbies and ski trips.

Still, I try to slow down and create some sense of a holiday for my kids. But it's not always easy. In Taiwan, where my parents grew up, Chinese New Year is the equivalent of winter break. Businesses shut down for two weeks, the highways and railways get clogged up, and plane ticket prices go way up. In the United States? There might be a PTA meeting scheduled on Chinese New Year's Eve.

It could be worse. I understand how my Jewish friends feel when they need to pull their kids out of school for Rosh Hashanah. Or how my Muslim roommate felt at a blogging conference filled with round-the-clock parties and free flowing drinks—only she was fasting for Ramadan.

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If my children went to a school with a large Asian-American population, it would be different. At some of our friends' elementary schools, many students come to class in shiny new silk jackets, and there are lion dances and potlucks. For my kids, there might be some mention of Chinese New Year. The teacher might read a story, or hand out an Asian-themed coloring sheet or word puzzle. Inevitably, someone will yell out "Gung hay fat choy!" which means Happy New Year in Cantonese (even though the overwhelming majority of Chinese people speak the Mandarin dialect).

In their good intentions to prepare me for a life in the United States, my parents sometimes forgot to pass on their own traditions.

Granted, it's a better acknowledgement of Asian culture than I ever got during my Midwestern childhood, but I want my kids to have more. I just wish I knew how. Part of the conundrum of being the daughter of immigrants is that I don't feel wholly American, and yet I don't feel Chinese, either. In their good intentions to prepare me for a life in the United States, my parents sometimes forgot to pass on their own traditions. As I've written before, my family put up a Christmas tree and decorated it with ornaments and tinsel each December. However, the only hints of the Lunar New Year were some red and gold paper signs taped around our kitchen. As a mother now, myself, I'm not completely sure I'm able to pass on my Taiwanese heritage to my own children.

So what do I do?

We read books about the Lunar New Year. We get haircuts and wear new clothes (preferably red, for good luck). We clean the house before New Year's Eve (meh) and then don't lift a finger during the two-week holiday (hey, it's bad luck!). We meet our extended relatives for banquets at Chinese restaurants.

But some of the traditional New Year's foods are dishes more typically served at home. We might have a hot pot—literally a steaming hot pot of broth in the center of the table—in which everyone cooks thin slices of raw beef or vegetables. Or my favorite, handmade dumplings. Last year, I convinced my mother not to take us out to a fancy restaurant dinner, but instead to teach me (and my kids) how to mix homemade dough and roll and fold it into lumpy, yet divinely chewy, boiled dumplings and fried pot stickers.

Of course, gifts help, too.

RELATED: Don't Let the Holidays Bust Your Budget

Grandparents, along with aunts and uncles give my boys red envelopes filled with lucky money. Sometimes the envelopes are filled with checks that are swiftly deposited into college savings accounts. Other times, they hold smaller bills that we let the kids fritter away on Pokémon cards and LEGOs.

Maybe that's what I'll do. Share the wealth—literally. My boys love their lucky money. What if we handed out red envelopes to their friends? They wouldn't need to be filled with largesse—just a little something and a note about Chinese New Year. Sometimes you have to make your own celebration.

Here's to a prosperous Year of the Snake!

Do you celebrate the Chinese New Year?

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