For kids adopted from China, it holds special meaning. Lunar New Year makes them mini-ambassadors of a culture they know little about firsthand.
There’s no official handbook on how far parents of internationally adopted children should go to celebrate their kids’ birth cultures, but marking Lunar New Year – Year of the Dragon begins Jan. 23 – is usually one of those times for Asian children.
Their parents decorate front doors, throw dumpling-making parties and stuff red envelopes with money. They clean their homes at the start of the 15-day celebration and hang red lanterns at the finish. Others keep it simple, sharing dim sum with friends at a restaurant or watching dragons dancing at parades in Chinese enclaves in their cities and towns.
The approach shifts and changes as the children grow. Some question whether they’ve done enough. Some do nothing at all.
“In south Louisiana, we’re definitely ambassadors to the Chinese culture,” said Jan Risher, of Lafayette. She and her husband have a 10-year-old from China.
“When she was younger, I tried to do more of the outward Chinese cultural things, like decorations and cooking specific dumplings,” Risher said. “But now that she’s a little older, we mainly talk about China, its history and customs and even its politics so that she can try and wrap her head around why she’s here. She’s a deep thinker.”
Karen Burgers in northern New Jersey has two girls from China, ages 10 and 5. They wear silk Chinese dresses and nibble vegetable lo mein, oranges and fortune cookies she brings in to school for the new year.
“I’ve certainly failed to promote an authentic experience,” Burgers said, “but the children get the gist, enjoy the festivity and learn a little about the culture.”
Rich Patterson and his wife are in Vancouver, British Columbia, home to a Chinese New Year parade that drew more than 50,000 people last year. The holiday, which reunites families around the world, does the same for the Pattersons.
They take in the parade and share dim sum with six other local families with whom they traveled to China to pick up their babies. Patterson’s daughter is now 4½.
“This year, as a first, we fused Christmas decorations with Chinese New Year decorations at our daughter’s request,” he said.
That meant a bright red and yellow dragon was nestled in Christmas garland front and center above their mantel.
The symbolism and superstitions surrounding the new year are steeped in more than 5,000 years of Chinese history. Here’s a sampler of popular customs among parents looking to celebrate the birth cultures of their adopted children.
CHINESE ZODIAC: The dragon is the fifth and mightiest position in the Chinese Zodiac. For adopted children, knowing one’s birth animal is a casual connection, though the convoluted zodiac includes many other elements taken far more seriously in Asia.
“My kids love to hear about the Chinese Zodiac,” said Heather Mayes Gleason, of Takoma Park, Md. She has a 5-year-old girl from China and a biological 3-year-old son.
“With Chinese adoption, you know very little about your child’s history, but you create their future. And I guess that is really what Chinese New Year is about,” Gleason said.
CLEANING HOUSE: Before the new year, sweep away bad luck from the previous year. Hair is cut before the new year and children wear new clothes to represent a new beginning.
For Myra Cocca in central Indiana, it’s harder as her kids have grown older and busier to observe the traditions they loved when they were small. Her son, adopted from South Korea, is now 11. When he was little, she dressed him in a traditional garment called a hanbok for new year’s. Today, “sometimes we’re not home during the holiday, so we have not always marked the occasion,” she said.
RED: The color is prominent in banners bearing holiday sayings in Chinese letters and decorative paper cutouts placed on doors and windows to scare away evil spirits and bad luck, along with gold and orange to symbolize wealth and happiness in the year to come. Lucky red envelopes with crisp new bills are given to children. Some parents slip in candy instead. Risher has taken the color red further than most: “I’ve given everyone in my family red underwear!”
DUMPLINGS: Crescent-shaped dumplings are eaten ahead of New Year’s Day in China. In northern China, they are prepared for midnight nibbling the night before. The shape evokes coins in ancient China and eating the dumplings is a bid for good financial tidings.
How does Piper, Risher’s 10-year-old, feel about dumplings and celebrating the new year? “I come from China, and it’s important to me that our family still celebrates some of my culture, too,” she said. “That’s where I’m from.”
LONG NOODLES: The longer the better to foster a long life. New year’s food traditions vary around the world, but main dishes of fish, duck or chicken are prepared whole because using scissors and knives is considered unlucky. That means pasta is uncut. It’s become a rallying cry for some in the adoption community: “Long noodles, long life!”
FIREWORKS: Many ancient beliefs exist about why fireworks play a major role in the new year. One is that loud noise scares away evil spirits and bad luck. That’s why Burgers brings sheets of bubble wrap to her kids’ school. “The bubble wrap is loudly stomped upon as the children parade around the room wearing a dragon head costume.”
LANTERN FESTIVAL: The 15th day of the new year is marked by parties where red lanterns are hung indoors and out. Lantern-making projects are a cottage industry for adoptive families online.
Kate Eastman and her husband recently moved from Maine to Anacortes, Wash., so their 9-year-old daughter from China could be closer to authentic Asian influences within an hour’s travel to Vancouver or Seattle. Lantern-making is one of those things they love to do.
Cali’s room is also full of Chinese dolls, books and other reminders of her heritage.
“It’s a learning process, and we follow Cali’s lead,” Eastman said. “It’s complex, for sure, and what makes it even more complex is how your child wants to observe each year and how much she wants to think of herself as Chinese or not. That’s always evolving and changing.”
For now, Mom said, “at 9 years old, she’s proud to refer to herself as Chinese American, and we’re equally proud of her for that.”