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Lunar New Year traditions evolve in the Asian diaspora

Chinese folk artists perform the lion dance at a temple fair to celebrate the Lunar New Year of Dragon in 2012 in Beijing, China.
Feng Li
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Getty Images
Chinese folk artists perform the lion dance at a temple fair to celebrate the Lunar New Year of Dragon in 2012 in Beijing, China.

Updated February 4, 2024 at 6:53 AM ET

Jan. 1 is an opportunity to start fresh for many people worldwide. They make resolutions to eat better, become healthier or take control of finances. Unfortunately, many people also abandon their resolutions by February. Luckily, it's around this time that I get a second chance to reflect on my year and set the tone for a new one.

This year, Feb. 10 marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year. It's one of the most important festivals in many Asian countries, including Vietnam, China, Korea as well as the Asian diaspora. The holiday prompts what is considered one of the world's largest annual human migrations as hundreds of millions of people travel back to their familial hometowns for the celebrations, which last up to two weeks. Certain foods are eaten only at this time of year. Often traditional costumes are worn. Celebrants gather to see parades and perform various rites and rituals with elders in order to guarantee a lucky year ahead.

Here in the U.S., I only get to celebrate each Lunar New Year — or Tet, in Vietnamese — for one day each year, as it's not a federally recognized holiday. Nevertheless, my parents made sure we spent our time wisely. We would all take the day off and put on our traditional ao dai to go visit my grandparents. They'd give us red envelopes, called li xi, filled with "lucky" money — but only after we give well wishes to our elders. On the days leading up to the New Year, we thoroughly clean the house up and spend days making banh chung, a sticky rice cake filled with pork belly and mung bean. Tet was always a reflective day focused on mindfulness and setting ourselves up for another successful year.

Lion Dancers perform in China Town on the Lunar New Year on Jan. 26, 2009 in London, England.
Dan Kitwood / Getty Images
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Lion Dancers perform in China Town on the Lunar New Year on Jan. 26, 2009 in London, England.

It wasn't until my first Lunar New Year alone in college that I came to appreciate how grounding it can be to spend the first day of the year focused on joy and family.

Members of a family are busy making the traditional lunar new year <em>banh chung</em>, or rice cakes, for sale on the courtyard of their house in Chanh Khuc village in suburban Hanoi.
Hoang Dinh Nam / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Members of a family are busy making the traditional lunar new year banh chung, or rice cakes, for sale on the courtyard of their house in Chanh Khuc village in suburban Hanoi.

This year's Tet is two weeks after my wedding date. My husband and I rested for just a few days after our nuptials before jumping in to preparations. In lieu of going home, we've invited the friends we've made in Washington to gather with us to enjoy traditional Vietnamese foods and learn about my traditions. We hope to continue this cultural exchange and share our love and luck with them for years to come.

Suzanne Nuyen and her then-fiancé celebrate the Lunar New Year on Jan. 22, 2023.
Suzanne Nuyen / NPR
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NPR
Suzanne Nuyen and her then-fiancé celebrate the Lunar New Year on Jan. 22, 2023.

Our celebration is just one example of how members of the Asian diaspora have evolved their Lunar New Year celebrations as they invite loved ones from other cultures to join in. Here's how more of NPR's current and former employees celebrate:

Kathleen Hoang, product manager, Salesforce

Hoang's parents are divorced, and she often splits her holiday between her mother, who is Korean, and her father, who is Chinese and Vietnamese. Her mother's family serves soju and Korean side dishes called banchan alongside photos of loved ones who have passed away. By moving the glasses and dishes around, it's as if her loved ones are enjoying a meal with her beyond the grave.

When she's with her father in D.C., Hoang's family does a deep clean the day before and wakes up early the next day to visit Vietnamese Buddhist temples in the area to pray and donate money. The family has a big meal in the evening. Food is laid out on an alter to honor and welcome ancestors. "New year is important to us because it's a fresh start for the year," her dad says. "Whatever we do on new year day sort of sets the tone for the rest of the year."

Kathleen Hoang, left, and her family celebrate the Lunar New Year in Fort Belvoir, Va., in 2020.
Kathleen Hoang / NPR
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NPR
Kathleen Hoang, left, and her family celebrate the Lunar New Year in Fort Belvoir, Va., in 2020.

That side of Hoang's family has always been close, and even during the pandemic they made efforts to stay in touch. For her, the Lunar New Year feels like any other regularly scheduled family gathering, albeit slightly more festive. "My dad's older sister makes sure we always meet together every month," she says. "I want to continue that tradition."

Wanyu Zhang, former brand director

Zhang is from Beijing. When she was living in China, her family would come together to make dumplings, hand out lucky money in red envelopes and watch the spring gala on China Central Television before enjoying fireworks at midnight. The Lunar New Year was one of the only times of year she could see her entire extended family. People usually get a week of vacation to celebrate. Special street markets are open all day and night for several weeks.

When Zhang moved to the U.S for college, she found a community of Chinese students to celebrate with, and was able to share the holiday with her non-Asian friends as well. "We built a new family," she said. "I sort of enjoyed it. We were doing something different." These days, it's become a tradition for her to invite a few friends over for a new year studio photo shoot with her boyfriend.

Wanyu Zhang, left, and her friends have a photo shoot to ring in the new year.
Matailong Du / matailongdu.com
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matailongdu.com
Wanyu Zhang, right, and her friends have a photo shoot to ring in the new year.

She keeps in touch with her family regularly, but the Lunar New Year is still a time for her to video chat with the whole family. They still watch the spring gala together virtually. "I want to keep that tradition no matter what," she said.

Zhang plans to stay in the U.S. for a long time, and she finds herself focusing more on the Western holidays that almost everyone celebrates, like Christmas. But she still finds small ways to celebrate and see her family. "It's a reminder that yes, this is still my holiday. But the definition is changing, and emotionally it's changing."

Gary Duong, senior marketing manager

Gary Duong, left and his husband Rick. Duong calls his parents and family every year for the Lunar New Year, but says his relationship with the holiday is complicated.
Gary Duong / NPR
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NPR
Gary Duong, left and his husband Rick. Duong calls his parents and family every year for the Lunar New Year, but says his relationship with the holiday is complicated.

Duong's parents are ethnically Chinese, but were born and lived in Vietnam. They came to the U.S. during the Vietnam War as refugees. Duong grew up in the Little Saigon area of Orange County, Calif. He remembers paying tributes to his ancestors and eating the same traditional dishes every year, but his relationship with the holiday is complicated.

"My parents never really got me," said Duong, who is gay. "We've always had a distant relationship. The new year doesn't represent much to me," he said. "I sort of know when Chinese New Year is coming up, but I don't really celebrate it. I will call my parents and wish them a new year." He'll also get in touch with his younger brother and niece every year.

Though he doesn't celebrate, Lunar New Year for Duong is still a reset for what he's accomplished, a retrospective look at how far he has come and a celebration of the newness of life.

Maureen Pao, editor and digital producer

Pao grew up in South Carolina with her parents, who emigrated from Taiwan, and Lunar New Year for her was a "big fun holiday," akin to Christmas. Their celebrations usually included partying with the entire local Chinese association. Because there weren't many other Asians in her community, the association spanned several counties. "There was a feeling of community," she said. "Most of the stuff that I learned and practice came from that association." At home, her grandparents would send the family red envelopes, clothes and food from Taiwan.

Pao became much more immersed in the traditions after spending time in mainland China after college. "There was much more cleaning of the house and all the special foods," she said. "Many of my Chinese New Year memories center around the food."

Her kids attend a Chinese immersion public charter school, where they get more exposure to the holiday. At home, she makes sure to decorate the house for the New Year.

Pao and her husband, who is white, were both keen on making sure their kids grew up familiar with their Chinese roots, and the Lunar New Year is a time to do just that. "It's a time to take stock of the past and to celebrate and get excited about what comes next," she said. "But to me it's especially about family and food. Even when it's just my kids and my husband and me, it still feels very special. It keeps us connected to each other and to Chinese traditions."

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