By Marpheen Chann

This year, as Mainers and Americans of Asian descent celebrate the Lunar New Year, we do so with a new awareness that despite varied immigration histories, stories, and ancestries, we are still considered “Other.” Many blame those of Asian descent for the COVID-19 pandemic. This has only exacerbated anti-Asian racism and xenophobia that has existed since the 1800s and has given rise to a wave of violence.   

Pandemic, racism reminders of importance of keeping culture alive  

As we enter 2022, the pressures and torrents of the pandemic and anti-Asian sentiment continue to impact communities. In response, many Mainers of Asian descent are leaning into the importance of keeping cultural traditions like the Lunar New Year alive. 

The Han family

“The anti-Chinese sentiment that came out of the pandemic has prompted me to feel more need to keep up the little bit of Chinese tradition that I can carry on,” said Cindy Han, who lives in Falmouth and is a producer of Maine Public’s Maine Calling show. 

Chinese Americans were especially struck by rising anti-Asian hate in 2021 as former President Donald Trump and many Americans targeted and blamed people from China, or those perceived to be Chinese, for the COVID-19 pandemic. Violence and discrimination against Asian Americans were spurred on by President Trump and national leaders who stooped to calling the novel coronavirus the “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese virus.” Local leaders in Maine followed suit. 

Meilin Brodeur, who was adopted from China by two Mainers and served as a board member of the Chinese American Friendship Association of Maine, said that “COVID-19 in its entirety has taken a toll on how Asian Americans are viewed. We went from a model minority to virus spreaders. It is important to celebrate and be proud of our heritage and share our traditions.” 

But despite a year of challenges, many still see silver linings. 

Reflecting on 2021’s Lunar New Year and looking ahead to this year’s celebrations, Han said that the pandemic “helped in that my grown kids were home with us during the pandemic, so I was able to do most of the traditions with them. During the pandemic, we also moved to live closer to my aging parents and will be able to celebrate this holiday with them, which is very meaningful.” 

What is Lunar New Year?  

The Lunar New Year has its origins in Ancient China and dates back to around 3000 BCE, thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution, when the rise and fall of great empires and their peoples were largely driven by agriculture. This was a time when famines, droughts, wildfires, or long winters could turn the tides of history.  

Farmers especially needed to know the optimal time to plant and sow their crops to benefit from spring rains. Although not perfect for predicting seasonal changes, the method that emerged was to observe and count the phases of the moon, particularly the new moons and the full moons. Lunar New Year usually begins with the new moon that appears sometime between the end of January and the end of February. This year, it falls on February 1. 

Portland-based writer Coco McCracken, of mixed Canadian, American, and Chinese background, summed up how her family celebrates. “It’s a time we celebrate the new season with tons of food,” she said. “We almost always have a huge dinner or a massive dim sum with about 30-40 cousins, uncles, aunts. We exchange red packets of money, and if it’s not too cold, we visit the graves of our ancestors, light incense, and bring them plates of food from our feasts.” 

Since ancient times, other East and Southeast Asian cultures have also celebrated the Lunar New Year for similar reasons and in many similar ways. This speaks to the sphere of China’s long history of influence in the region and the mixing and mingling of cultures through trade and intermarriage. One of the common traditions across different East and Southeast Asian cultures is visiting and spending time with family and giving gifts. Other practices include settling debts, honoring one’s ancestors, and preparing to start the new year with a clean slate. 

Lunar New Year, for instance, is celebrated by people of Vietnamese background, who refer to it as Tết. Troy Huynh of Scarborough said, “Tết truly means everything! It is a combination of all the holidays…Christmas, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day. It is a time to unite with families and reflect as well as renew hope.” He and his family fled Vietnam when he was 11, and was resettled in Maine in 1989. 

“We celebrate for three days with family, food, and friends. On the first day of the new year, we visit my side of the family. On the second day, we visit my wife’s family’s side. On the third day, we visit with friends,” Huynh said. 

Teeokguk rice cake soup is a delicious, filling soup made of disc-shaped rice cakes in a clear broth

“New Year’s Day is an opportunity to honor our elders,” said Tae Chong, a Portland City Councilor who immigrated to the U.S. from Korea in 1976 at the age of 7. “A big focus is on health and long life, and so we would go to our elders dressed in traditional Korean clothes to wish them good health and longevity, followed by gifts of money, teeokguk (lucky rice) soup, and games.” 

Lunar New Year celebrations also play a role in helping American parents who have adopted children from East and Southeast Asia connect their children with an essential piece of their cultural heritage. 

Jennifer Christoforo of Yarmouth, who adopted her daughter from Jiangxi Province in China, wrote that they celebrate the holiday with the same importance as Western holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving. 

“We have wonderful traditional foods and decorate our home,” said Christoforo, who is also a member of the Chinese American Friendship Association (CAFAM). “We celebrate with local events too… In Maine, we needed to go virtual last year. In 2020, we were able to squeeze in our live CAFAM event just before the spread of covid and shut-downs.” 

Year of the Tiger 

This Lunar New Year also marks the Year of the Tiger, one of the twelve zodiac signs in Asian culture. The tiger is considered the king of all beasts in many Asian cultures, and represents strength, the exorcising of evils, and bravery. As Mainers of Asian descent bring the year to a close, settle debts, patch up familial relationships, and reflect, the symbolism of the tiger is not lost on those who celebrate. 

Ophelia Hu Kinney, another member of CAFAM whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Hunan, China, said, “Many of our peoples that celebrate Lunar New Year come from histories of separation, immigration, war, and trauma. What we can do right now is unite against a common enemy – this pandemic – and make sure that we weather it in the safest way possible for our most vulnerable populations: our elders, our children, those facing financial hardship, and those living with illness. Our bravery now is in our everyday commitment to one another. Our strength is in our togetherness.” 

About the author 

Marpheen Chann is the author of the upcoming memoir Moon in Full: A Modern Coming-of-Age Story (Islandport Press, June 2022). Chann is also a Maine politician, speaker, community organizer, and gay man of color. As a gay, first-generation Asian American born in California to a Cambodian refugee family and later adopted by an evangelical, white working-class family in Maine, Marpheen uses a mix of humor and storytelling to help people view topics such as racism, xenophobia, and homophobia through an intersectional lens.