Lunar New Year

Jin Chan, known as the money frog in the West, sits on a low wooden shelf next to our front door. His three legs perch on a puddle of gold coins while another coin nestles in his crater-like mouth and looks like a tongue. His red eyes pierce the dimly lit living room that looks into the kitchen where my mother is unwrapping a package of thick noodles into a boiling pot. The smell of fresh ginger fills the air while my brother sets the table for Nián Yè Fàn, the last supper before the Lunar New Year. This scene of culinary frenzy and giddy anticipation is unfolding for Jin Chan to oversee. According to ancient Chinese fables, Jin Chan beckons wealth and financial prosperity to the household. Especially around Lunar New Year, Jin Chan is also a symbol of good luck. In our household, Jin Chan is a permanent and welcoming fixture. His presence is a small and potent reminder of my family’s Asian ethnicity.

At Nián Yè Fàn, our house is filled with symbols of luck for the new year: lots of red EVERYWHERE – clothes, candles, lanterns, table cloth, napkins, and wall tapestries. Everything is drenched in the color of blood, symbolizing vitality, life, vigor and luck.

What we eat is culturally determined in big ways, and can be a matter of respecting or rebelling against certain ethnic traditions.

Every year, my family and I celebrate Chinese New Year in our small home in Brooklyn. As children, we squealed in anticipation for hóngbāo (red envelopes) and stuffed our faces ferociously with nian gao (rice cakes). As adults, we are a little calmer when it comes to stuffing our faces with glutinous cakes (sometimes), but we still enjoy a hearty meal. This is where it gets thorny. Since I am vegan, duck is not on my menu for Chinese New Year.

What we eat is culturally determined in big ways, and can be a matter of respecting or rebelling against certain ethnic traditions. Every year since adopting a vegan lifestyle, the choice to include vegan options into a traditional Chinese New Year meal has been a controversial one, and an issue that shows just how powerful and emotional food can be. Meat, eggs, dairy are important ingredients in many popular Asian dishes.  In Chinese tradition, each dish has a special meaning because their chinese name sounds like an auspicious character: fish (yú) sounds like the character for extra or excess, so fish at the dinner table symbolizes good bounty for the new year. Similarly, orange (ju) sounds like ji which means lucky, so oranges are lucky, too. So, now what happens if you have a daughter who does not want fish or duck or beef or pork on the table? It gets a little thorny.

We always eventually compromise (this year we had traditional duck and fish but the dumplings were vegan so yay!), but every year at this time, I am reminded of how food is such a big part of our emotional lives and our identities. How do you navigate the thorny terrain of maintaining a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle while still respecting your ethnic identity as it relates to the foods you eat? It’s a big question, but in the meantime – gōng xǐ fā cái!

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