The Lunar New Year falls on Feb. 5 this year. It's a momentous occasion celebrated by millions around the world. Cynthia Chen McTernan, founder of the blog Two Red Bowls and author of A Common Table, shares what this holiday means to her—and how its significance has grown over the years.
When I was a kid, Lunar New Year was a celebration confined solely to my little family. I grew up in South Carolina, in one of just a handful of Chinese families in our city. With both sets of grandparents back in China and aunts and uncles scattered across the globe, our celebration was usually small—just me, my brother, and my parents, gathered under the butter-yellow light in our kitchen around a vigorously bubbling hot pot, fishing for shrimp with our chopsticks, skewering fish balls, and ladling out noodles for long life, celebrating a new year a month after the rest of the neighborhood had.
Most of what comes back to me when I think of those early celebrations is a coziness, a quiet embodiment of love, gratitude for another year with family, and hopefulness for the new one. But when I left for college, I discovered a community of Asian-American students who had celebrated this all their lives just like I had—and who made the holiday not the quiet and secluded dinner that I’d grown up with, but a vibrant, rich celebration.
Students gathered to put on dance and talent showcases with performances, food, and afterparties, attended not just by Asian-American students, but by students across campus. And that trend continued in law school, with students knocking on each other’s doors to go get dim sum to celebrate, gathering around baskets of roe-adorned siu mai and translucent har gow with our school families when we could not go home to be with our actual ones.
This newfound sense of connectedness only grew more when I began my blog in 2013 and stumbled upon a whole new kind of community on the Internet. In places like Food52 and on Instagram, I found that community could be even wider than I’d imagined.
With Lunar New Year being the food-centric holiday that it is, I found through hashtags and forums and recipe collections that this food holiday was celebrated in more delicious, fantastic ways than I ever could have imagined. I ventured to post my Great-Grandmother’s Lion’s Head Meatballs, and found new recipes for long-life noodles, whole fish, pineapple cakes, and so much more.
These days, my half-Korean husband and I celebrate Lunar New Year in our own cozy kitchen, and here, too, our celebration has grown since my hot pot days with my family. In addition to the Chinese food I grew up with, we’ve added things he’s grown up with, like dduk guk and jeon. We Skype our parents so that they can see their grandson, and, at some point in the night, I end up on the couch on Instagram, surfing through all the many ways that others are out there celebrating the same holiday.
This Lunar New Year ushers in the year of the pig, which my husband and I are hoping will get off to a very special start because I’m due with our second baby in just a few weeks of this writing. So—with fingers crossed all goes well—she’ll be year of the pig. It’s funny, neither of us actually has any family who is year of the pig, so we have had fun reading about how she’s supposed to be based on her zodiac. (Google says “happy, easygoing, honest, trusting, educated, sincere and brave”—I like the sound of that!)
This wide sense of interconnectedness I found through the lunar new year-celebrating community is new, but inexpressibly wonderful to me. Years after I was a little girl sitting with my family around hot pot, this modern celebration, shared with loved ones near and far, strikes me as the truest embodiment of what Lunar New Year is all about.