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Family Life

Spending a Holiday Far from Home

Ianni Le

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Growing up in Shanghai, China, Lunar New Year (we call it Chinese New Year or Spring Festival/春节) is a big deal. I often compare it to a combination of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s all in one when explaining its cultural significance to my U.S. friends. When I was going to school in Shanghai, we got a whole month off of school to celebrate — it’s that important (and to a young girl who didn't want to go to school, it's that much fun!).

When I moved to the States for college, I knew it would be unlikely that I’d get time off school much less be able to go home and be with family. Even though I tried to prepare myself, my first Chinese New Year away from home was unbelievably difficult. The homesickness and culture shock has never hit me that hard.

It was a bizarre feeling to have to go to class and be around everybody who treated the new year like just any other day. Other Chinese students around me always wished me a happy new year and were even kind enough to invite me to their new year's eve dinners (community is a big deal for us this time of year, especially when we’re overseas), but it still wasn’t quite the same.

Five years of missed new year celebrations later, I can’t say that it’s gotten any easier. We all do our best to celebrate and adhere to our traditions as much as we can, but this is a celebration that is first and foremost about family, and we are never with our families for it. Living in the U.S. is obviously full of culture differences, but it’s this time of year that I feel it the most.

Many international and domestic students alike can relate to these specific times of year where homesickness hits harder than usual, whether it be a special holiday, tradition, or your birthday. Moving away for college is a rite of passage but it also brings with it new difficulties we all do our best to overcome.

All the international students who celebrate Lunar New Year find ourselves glued to our phones on our new year’s eve to call our families (after doing the math to account for time differences) and wish our elders a happy new year.

I haven't seen my mother in a year and a half now because of the pandemic so I kept her on video call for a few extra minutes this year just to tell her how much I missed her and that I wished I was with her during this special time.

A red bracelet to celebrate the Chinese Year of the OxFor anyone who’s familiar with the Chinese Zodiac, this is the Year of the Ox (which is my year!). The zodiac cycles through twelve different animals in a twelve-year cycle based on the Lunar Calendar (you can Google your birth year to see what year you are).

Now that it’s my year, my mom took extra care to mail me a lucky charm on a red bracelet, making certain that I’d receive it before the new year.

Because I came into the world during the Year of the Ox, we believe it makes all those born during this year extra vulnerable. Superstition? Maybe! But it’s deeply ingrained in our culture so we pay extra attention and give it the respect it’s due.

Beyond a show of respect for my culture, my lucky bracelet is a show of my mother’s love for me and I could not be more grateful for it (it came all the way from China during a global pandemic after all!). To me, it's like having a piece of my mother's heart around my wrist, keeping me safe during this new year.

If you’d like to learn about the story behind the Chinese Zodiac, it’s one of my favorite legends from my childhood. There are many different versions (especially in regards to why the Cat wasn’t included), and you’ll find that everyone chooses to tell it a bit differently, but here’s a bedtime story version that’s close to the adaptation my grandfather told my brother and me when we were little.

To all of those who celebrate the Lunar New Year, Happy New Year (新年快乐)!

And may all of us be blessed with good luck and prosperity this new year.

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Ianni Le is a freelance writer and content creator. She attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, graduating with a degree in Media Design and English Literature. Ianni grew up in Shanghai, China and enjoys her dogs, books and food equally.
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