Dragons, dumplings, and lanterns – oh my!
I sprinted through San Francisco’s crowded streets, soup sloshing in my Nalgene water bottle. I was catching up to the dragon.
The time was Chinese New Year, February 2019. The place – San Francisco’s Chinatown. While dragon dancers, dumplings, and red lanterns were not new to me, I had only experienced them in small doses. Raised in Fargo, North Dakota, and a graduate of a small liberal arts college in rural Minnesota, I only knew the small-town Midwest.
As a Chinese adoptee, my family celebrates Chinese New Year annually. We typically order lo mein and orange chicken and exchange red envelopes stuffed with chocolate gold coins. In elementary school, my adoptive mother presented on Chinese cultural celebrations during the New Year.
Yet, I was consistently the sole Chinese kid in the classroom, living in a city where the population is less than 4% Asian. Celebrating Chinese New Year always felt like a custom unique to my family, rather than a city-wide celebration.
So when I moved to the Bay Area for a teaching position, I felt determined to attend the largest Chinese New Year parade outside Asia. As a bonus, it was the Year of the Pig, the Chinese zodiac animal that falls on my birth year – 1995.
How is Chinese New Year celebrated?
Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year, corresponds with the ancient Chinese calendar, based on the phases of the moon. The specific dates vary from year to year, but it always begins with the first full moon that occurs between January 21st and February 20th. Chinese New Year lasts fifteen days, ending with the Lantern Festival.
Each year in the Chinese calendar is associated with the traits of a particular zodiac animal, which rotate in a twelve-year cycle. Chinese New Year signifies the transition between animals. Thus, celebrations often incorporate images of the animal corresponding with that year. The order of the animals is as follows: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.
Chinese New Year customs vary among Chinese communities worldwide and within different regions of China. Some traditional Chinese practices include cleaning the house to rid it of bad luck, spending time with family, and setting off fireworks to scare away evil spirits. People often give red envelopes (hóngbāo in Mandarin) enclosed with money to children. Foods that are popular during the new year include fish, noodles representing long life, and dumplings shaped like the moon.
History of the Chinese New Year parade in San Francisco
In the 1860s, Chinese immigrants who arrived in California to work in the gold mines or the railroad combined the American tradition of grand parades with their New Year festivities. They did this as a way to promote understanding of and respect for their heritage among other San Franciscans.
Since 1958, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce has directed the annual parade. This year, however, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the live parade has been canceled. In its place, a virtual event will be held.
My 2019 celebration continued . . .
The reason for my frenzied dash to the parade revolved around food. Minutes before, a group of friends and I had been making soup. We were concocting a vegetable and dumpling dish that our companion Joanna had grown up eating on Chinese New Year. It was magical to watch parsnips, cilantro, and mushrooms transform into a warm, aromatic broth simmering on the stove. Our mistake was that we started cooking too late. By the time we should have been leaving for the parade, our meal was barely half complete.
After dashing up and down San Francisco’s notorious hills, we finally made it. Fireworks blazed above, and glowing red lanterns and banners hung from buildings. Floats of many colors rolled by. Onlookers packed the streets. While many of the attendees were Chinese, Black, Latinx, and white attendees could also be spotted.
Not only was it nearly impossible for non-parade vehicles to cross the city, but pedestrians were also herded into the crowd. We seemed to move in sync, like the dragon dancers snaking through the streets.
I left the parade shortly after 10 pm. The excitement of the night left me ravenously hungry. Apparently, the soup I had frantically slurped from my water bottle had not held me over. Few restaurants were open, so my only option was to order takeout orange chicken – an ode to my childhood celebrations.
A new year in retrospect
Since that 2019 Chinese New Year celebration, I moved back to Fargo and started a career as a journalist. I had not thought about that parade much in the past two years. However, the onset of 2021 and preparations for this year’s Chinese New Year (on February 12th) have stirred some reflections.
- Allot yourself ample time to cook before any event you plan to attend on foot.
- Celebrating Chinese New Year with hundreds of other Chinese people felt empowering. Never before had I taken part in an event that recognized Chinese culture on such a large scale. It was moving to witness an entire city show an interest in and respect for an ethnic population that lives there.
- There is no singular “authentic” way to practice any culture. Every family celebrates slightly differently. My experience in San Francisco attending a parade and cooking with friends was meaningful. Yet, so is my adoptive family’s tradition of ordering Chinese takeout and gorging on chocolate coins.
To me, the heart of Chinese New Year is reflecting on the past (roughly) twelve months and ringing in the next twelve with the people I love most. And by that account, each year I celebrate is equally special.
Gōng Xǐ Fā Cái!