Grace Jan's Chinese school class performing for Lunar New Year

Lunar New Year: Lessons From Chinese School

Grace Jan in a blue dance outfit with a red feather fan in her hands.
Grace Jan at Lunar New Year

As a second-generation Chinese American growing up in Southern California, I made some of my fondest and most vivid childhood memories during my Chinese School’s Lunar New Year celebrations. Every weekend, my Chinese School instructed its students in a culture and language that our parents hoped would be reclaimed in our lives.

During the weekends leading up to the Lunar New Year, the school’s elective classes, such as Chinese dance, martial arts, calligraphy, painting, music, or poetry, would prepare special performances and presentations. I loved learning to dance with fans and create formations with my fellow dancers in choreography representing animals of the zodiac. As sustenance for these practices, I would dash to buy my favorite snack, a tea egg (茶葉蛋).

On the eve of Lunar New Year, my dance group would dress in traditional Chinese clothing that prior generations may have worn. Our families would gather in the auditorium, with parents and grandparents capturing images of their children, passing out flowers, and beaming with pride and joy. It was a yearly occasion that bound my family together and the one day of the year when I felt the Chinese community across Southern California gather in solidarity, joy, and remembrance.Students in blue outfits with red fans performing onstage for Lunar New YearGrace and her fellow Chinese school students performing for the Lunar New Year

As a second-generation Chinese American years removed from those weekends, I’ve expanded my understanding of this day as a shared experience across other cultures. Now, widening my circle to people beyond my Chinese relationships and lengthening celebrations over multiple days or weeks, I enjoy celebratory meals among diverse groups of coworkers, friends, and family. My children, half Chinese and half Korean, are still young, but I look forward to immersing them in these traditions and reminding them that the New Year holiday comes twice a year in our family. I hope I’ll be able to teach my children—and myself—Korean traditions like how to make rice cake soup (떡국) or dress in traditional Korean clothing (한복) and pay respect to their elders by bowing. I look forward to teaching them, sharing with them, and exposing them to the rich and diverse colors, smells, sounds, textures, and tastes that have run through the Lunar New Year celebrations I remember, filling each holiday with joy and happiness.

Grace Jan

Grace Jan is the Yao Wenqing Chinese Painting Conservator at the Freer and Sackler where she cares for the museum’s Chinese painting and calligraphy collection. Ms. Jan supports the museum’s Chinese Painting Conservation Program to promote domestic and international exchange and collaboration.

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