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A Taste of Home on Lunar New Year

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My parents and I never ran out of plates to use⸺ unless it was Lunar New Year. On that special occasion, we cooked up a storm. We adorned our dining table with dumplings, vegetable stir fry, braised pork, spiced beef, and many more dishes, all displayed on the table using every single plate in our kitchen.

 

Lunar New Year is one of my favorite festivals. I grew up in Singapore, a predominantly Chinese society where Lunar New Year is a public holiday. My extended family lives in China, and every Lunar New Year we would Skype one another to show off our tables full of food. I loved Lunar New Year when I was at home and was pleasantly surprised to learn about the Lunar New Year celebrations at Swarthmore.

 

Lunar New Year is celebrated in various parts of Asia including China, Vietnam, Mongolia, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. It marks the beginning of a new year according to the lunar calendar, which tracks both lunar cycles and solar phenomena. During Lunar New Year, households and businesses are abuzz with activity, including worshipping deities and ancestors for good fortune, as well as thoroughly cleaning out properties to purge the environment of evil. Friends and families gather for feasting and merrymaking to honor their close relationships.

 

Although Lunar New Year is not as grand an affair in most of the U.S., many Swarthmore students gathered last Friday, Feb. 16, to celebrate Lunar New Year.

 

The celebration began at LPAC with a dinner and performance organized by the Intercultural Center. As participants enjoyed some Filipino food, they watched a lion dance by the Penn Lions. The Penn Lions are a lion dance troupe at the University of Pennsylvania and have been performing for colleges, museums, and other organizations since 2007.

 

Lion dance is a traditional Chinese dance performed at Lunar New Year and other occasions such as business inaugurations. Two performers dress up in one lion costume and mimic the movements of lions as they dance to loud percussion music. In Chinese belief, the loud music deters malevolent spirits and demons from interrupting an important event.

 

As the Penn Lions’ percussionists started sounding their drums and cymbals, the lions began to move, adjusting their speed to match the rhythm. Their goal was to destroy a poisonous spider on the ground and usher in prosperity for the year ahead. The spider represents the hardship from the past year that the lions must destroy.

 

With each resounding beat of the drum and clang of the cymbals, the lions ran, jumped, blinked shyly at their audience, or nuzzled up close to them. Most spectacularly, the lions sometimes stood on their hind legs, necessitating one performer in each lion to stand atop the other’s shoulders.

 

When the time came to confront the spider, the lions carefully approached the spider, scratching behind their ears as they contemplated their best plan of attack.

 

In a flash, the lions charged at the spider while the music built to a crescendo. They tore the spider up, revealing a cabbage underneath the spider’s body. This was “Cai Qing”, the climax of the lion dance. The lions gobbled up the cabbage and spit the shreds at the audience to bless them with wealth and abundance. To end the lively performance, the lions unfurled two red scrolls inscribed with auspicious Chinese poetry.

 

Sara Zhou, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania and External Vice President of the Penn Lions, has participated in lion dance since freshman year. Zhou sees lion dance as a way to keep in touch with Chinese culture. “I didn’t feel so connected with my culture before college, so participating in lion dance is a way for me to go back to my roots,” Zhou said.

 

Besides the Penn Lions themselves, audience members also enjoyed the lion dance.

 

“I thought the performance and music were powerful. They provoked a visceral reaction in me, like when the lions were attacking the spider. They were scary,” Nicholas Anderson ‘20 said.

 

“I loved the lion dance a lot, “ Alexis Riddick ̕20 said. “I liked the fact that there were two people in each lion costume and they had the strength to lift somebody up.”

 

Besides the lion dance, there was also a Hot Pot Party hosted by the Swarthmore Chinese Society. Hot pot is a Chinese dish where a pot of broth is placed on an electric or propane stove at the table. While the broth is boiling, raw ingredients displayed on the table are put into the broth to cook. When the ingredients are done cooking, they are removed from the pot for consumption.

 

Inside the Intercultural Center, students lined up to cook their favorite ingredients in the pot from the vast selection prepared by SCS. There was a seemingly endless array of ingredients ⸺ beef and pork slices, meatballs, cabbage, mushroom, rice noodles, and much more. Meanwhile, the television played the annual Lunar New Year extravaganza on China Central Television, a staple of many Chinese family gatherings.

 

SCS Co-President Sophie Song ̕20 stressed the importance of holding the Hot Pot Party. “We host a Hot Pot Party every year because Lunar New Year is about being with your family. There are many international students around, and it’s sad for them to be alone on Lunar New Year, so we try to make it a happy occasion,” she said.

 

Leren Gao ̕20, the other SCS Co-President, agreed with Song. “It’s great that so many people are at the Hot Pot Party. A lot of people are away from home, and it can be especially difficult for freshmen. We are trying to bring a bit of home to Swarthmore,” she smiled.

 

Among the crowd savoring their food, chatting with their friends, and watching television, an undeniable coziness arose. “Lunar New Year is different from Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is noisy and crowded like a carnival. At this Hot Pot Party, I feel like I’m coming home, because there are lots of people around, just eating and hanging out,” Zechen Zhang ̕18, a student from Tianjin, China, said.

 

“Having people come together and celebrate is important for keeping my identity of being Chinese. The Hot Pot Party is one of the few events where I feel I can connect to tradition and heritage,” Zhang added.

“It’s great that we got the funding and location to hold the Hot Pot Party this year. It’s important for Chinese students abroad and Chinese-Americans away from home to honor our culture through this event. Hopefully, as the years go on, we can expand this event. It will require more funding, but hopefully we can get that,” Billy Yang ̕19, a student from Inner Mongolia, China, described his vision for the future of SCS.

 

No matter how far from home we are, Lunar New Year is a wonderful time for us to connect with others and share our delight in one another’s presence. That is the universal spirit of Lunar New Year, which transcends culture and tradition to bring people from different backgrounds together.

 

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