Home Alone: Year of the Rabbit Edition

Flora Xie on celebrating the Lunar New Year by herself – and her desire to reconnect with culturally important holidays despite Gregorian calendar supremacy.

Posted on
20.01.23

I remember learning about Lunar New Year traditions, such as putting a gold coin in a dumpling, at school in New Zealand. The teachers and students would always turn to me and ask, “Is that what your family does?” I’d tell them that we didn’t, but maybe other families did. Somehow, it felt like the curriculum could only conceptualise a simplified and generalised version of the holiday – as if billions of people across culturally and ethnically diverse communities celebrated the Lunar New Year in the exact same way.

Different people do different things. I’m Shanghainese, so we celebrate the Chinese New Year (新年). In China, it’s a festival that lasts two weeks, usually consisting of huge parades with lion dances, and firework and firecracker displays, followed by a lantern festival on the 15th day of the New Year. But for those from the Chinese diaspora, making a home and community elsewhere, the celebrations have taken on different shapes, intensity, shades and forms – including barely there at all.

For those from the Chinese diaspora, making a home and community elsewhere, the celebrations have taken on different shapes, intensity, shades and forms – including barely there at all

This year I’m spending the Lunar New Year alone, and I’m not quite sure what to do. I want to celebrate the holiday and rekindle my relationship with my culture, but it just won’t feel the same without my family.

As a child in Shanghai, I frequently attended large dinners and gatherings with my extended family – it was the normal thing. When my small nuclear family moved here (back then it was just my parents and me), we stuck to the traditions. We’d watch the live broadcast of the festivities back in China, we’d have big dinners either at home or at a Chinese restaurant, my parents would give me red pockets, and we’d all participate in our superstitions around the Lunar New Year. My mother would make sure we never ate all the food on New Year’s Eve and would instead save the leftovers for the next day to preserve the wealth for the coming year. She would tell me to stay awake until midnight, even though I was more than ready for bed, to auspiciously cross over into the new year. Most distinctly, I remember being told to keep my red pockets under my pillow as I slept that night, to help me bring wealth into the new year. I don’t know how much financial knowledge my six-year-old self had, but I did it in the spirit of celebrations.

This year I’m spending the Lunar New Year alone, and I’m not quite sure what to do

As time went on, we did less every year. The first thing to go was watching the broadcast of the festivities. Now, aside from my parents giving my brother and me red pockets and us saying 新年快乐, 恭喜发财 (happy New Year, wishing you happiness and prosperity) to each other, it feels like any other day. We’re still out and about doing our individual daily routines, and the food we eat is the same as on any other day. While I understand why we have lost the tradition over time – the rest of our family members aren’t here to keep the festivities up, it hardly feels like a celebration when it’s just the four of us in New Zealand – it’s unfortunate. Our festive feelings have dissipated over time, like the other parts of our culture we struggle to keep alive in foreign lands. Often, the reality is that we’re just too busy and preoccupied to do anything. Though I still like to stay up past midnight and keep my red pocket under my pillow as I sleep on New Year’s Eve – at 22, I need that wealth more than when I was six.

I still like to stay up past midnight and keep my red pocket under my pillow as I sleep on New Year’s Eve

This year, I’ll be spending it alone. My nuclear family is going out of town and my extended family remains overseas. My grandparents recently returned to Shanghai. I don’t even know where to start with the occasion. Do I celebrate it? By myself? How do I even do this? Should I still abide by the superstitions? Am I supposed to cook traditionally auspicious dishes? If my grandma was still in New Zealand, she’d be making spring rolls and noodle soup with egg dumplings, cooking fish and fresh veggies – it would be a whole feast. I’m sure I’m not the only one experiencing this – a lot of people are away from their families for various reasons during this period, whether by choice or circumstances – but it sucks nonetheless. It’s the equivalent of being alone on Christmas and the Western New Year holiday – I don’t really know how Western families feel about this, but I’ve seen enough movies about it to get the gist. Hopefully I won’t have to set up booby traps around my house and fend off robbers while I’m by myself. 

It’s a strange thing to feel FOMO for my own cultural event. It’s strange to see other families cluster around the spinning plates of noodles and fish to celebrate the Year of the Rabbit while mine doesn’t. It feels wrong for me to celebrate the New Year of the Gregorian calendar more than the New Year of the lunar calendar.

A lot of people are away from their families for various reasons during this period, whether by choice or circumstances – but it sucks nonetheless

It would be a lie to say that I’ve always wanted to celebrate the Lunar New Year. I thought participating in cultural events would alienate me further from fitting into New Zealand. But as the years go by, I long for more of my culture. I miss my home. Against the wishes of my inner child, I want to learn. I’m tired of rejecting an essential part of who I am – I want to be proud of it. But as I am finally starting to come to terms with my cultural identity, my family is letting go.

To sit out the Lunar New Year celebrations feels like I’m turning my back on my own culture, but it is hard to be festive when you’re alone. Even though my family haven’t been the most observant of Chinese holidays and festivals, even when we first arrived in New Zealand – and I don’t blame them, it’s hard immigrating overseas with no family or connections – it’s still nice to be in their presence and share the sentiment of the day. That’s what I’ll be missing the most. When my grandparents aren’t with us for the New Year, I like to talk with them over WeChat to exchange auspicious sayings like 长命百岁 (wishing you a long life), 万事如意 (hope you have all of your wishes fulfilled) and 身体健康 (wishing you good health). This year I’ll do the same, and hear about the delicious food my grandma would be making for me if she was still in New Zealand. With the current Covid situation in China, my grandparents have been hesitant to leave their house, and I can imagine the rest of my extended family shares that sentiment. Perhaps we’ll all be having isolated New Year celebrations for a change.

As I am finally starting to come to terms with my cultural identity, my family is letting go

So, if you are with your family for the holiday, I hope you’re able to cherish it and enjoy it – as difficult as that may be with different Chinese family dynamics (if you know, you know). If you aren’t with your family, know that you are not alone. We’re all sharing the unknown experiences and stumbling through the Lunar New Year together.

Header Illustration by Gabbie De Baron