Chinese New Year celebrations in Utah bring out many family traditions

story and slideshow by LAUREN CARTER

See images of food, paper lanterns and New Chinatown in Los Angeles


The United States is a melting pot of people from countries all over the world. Many people living in the U.S. carry out traditions that have been passed down through generations from their families’ country of origin. In many Asian cultures, a popular time to carry out traditions is during New Year’s.

“New Year’s always has to be a big celebration, never small,” said Anh Dang, a freshman at the University of Utah, whose family lives in Salt Lake City but originates from Vietnam. “How you celebrate the New Year determines how the rest of the year will be.”

China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Korea celebrate the Chinese New Year. Japan celebrated the Chinese New Year for centuries before switching to celebrate the solar calendar’s New Year. However, some Japanese families still follow some of the traditions associated with Chinese New Year.

Chinese New Year falls on a different date every year, based on the lunar calendar. This date usually falls between January 31 and February 20, according to the solar calendar.

“Traditions for celebrating Chinese New Year are different for each country,” said Sora Lee, a Korean exchange student currently studying fashion design at the U.

Lee usually celebrates the Chinese New Year by cooking traditional Korean food and watching television with her family in Korea. They do not eat specific dishes for certain holidays, Lee said, but eat like they would as if it were a normal day.

Lee’s family doesn’t celebrate by doing certain traditions like other Asian countries. They just rest, meet with family and eat food together, she said. This upcoming year, Lee plans to try celebrating the solar New Year with her brother in Salt Lake City. They plan to celebrate by attending a three-hour Mass at a Catholic Church.

“In the United States it’s so complicated, everything is so different,” said Yuko Takeushi, a Japanese exchange student who is currently majoring in psychology at the U.  Staying in touch with Japanese culture is difficult, she said, but she likes reminiscing about her New Year’s traditions.

Every year Takeushi’s family goes to a shrine or temple in Japan to make wishes to their ancestors. Her family doesn’t have religion, she said, but they relate a lot with Buddhism beliefs. “We wish for God, good health and family,” she said.

Takeushi’s family also declares personal goals for the next year. These goals are written out in “shoozie,” meaning calligraphy in English, on a scroll during their New Year’s Day celebrations, she said.

Dang, whose family came from Vietnam, said his New Year’s traditions involve paying respects to the dead at the family’s home in Salt Lake City. This respect is shown through offerings of food. Their house has to be clean before they can “light incense and offer food to spirits that have passed,” Dang said. “Basically you just do what you want to do but you can’t mess the house up.” After the offering is complete, Dang’s family prepares traditional Vietnamese food for a large dinner. These traditional dishes often include fish, chicken and some style of rice.

Michelle Doong, a senior at the U who has ancestors from Taiwan and China, receives homebahs as part of her family’s traditions. Homebahs, also known as red bags, are filled with money and given to relatives in celebration for New Year’s and birthday celebrations. Doong usually receives one homebah from her parents and each set of grandparents every New Year.

Doong’s family also celebrates by eating traditional Chinese foods that contain some kind of soup, meat, chicken, fish, rice and noodles. “We do a huge dinner with the family,” she said. “There is at least twelve dishes, they want everyone to eat as much as they can.”

This is because of an ancient Chinese legend about a monster named Nein. The legend says that Nein would come on the first day of every New Year to devour anything it could capture. He would usually eat livestock, crops and people, especially children, Doong said.

The people began to leave food out for Nein, believing that if he were full then he would not take their children.  According to the legend, people saw that Nein was scared off by a child wearing red. Since then, red-colored lanterns and scrolls are used for decorations on New Year. The legend also says that Nein is scared away by the loud noise firecrackers make. Thus, fireworks often accompany the Chinese New Year celebrations.

Growing up, Doong learned a similar story where the kids would be taken away by the monster if they did not eat enough food at New Year’s dinner, she said. The twelve dishes they eat always contain some kind of soup, meat, chicken, fish, rice and noodles.

“Everybody loves traditions,” said Erika Minjarez, a junior majoring in mass communication at the U.

Her New Year’s traditions involve her mother and grandmother making traditional Japanese food. “We always have like chow mein, tempura, sushi and then we have American dishes, but I won’t go into that,” Minjarez said. “We’re not hard core into our heritage so it’s nice to have that.” Eating traditional Japanese food is what they have always done to celebrate the New Year; she said she couldn’t picture eating anything else.

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