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In the shadow of the pandemic, young Asian Americans reflect on the meaning of Lunar New Year

headshots of Kyle Chong AND Grace Gerloff set against a red background
Courtesy of Grace Shu Gerloff and Kyle Chong
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Grace Shu Gerloff/ Ava Krahn and Kyle Chong
Grace Shu Gerloff is a doctoral student in Sociocultural Anthropology at Michigan State University (Left) and Kyle Chong (Right) is a doctoral student at the MSU College of Education.

Every year, it’s a tradition for families across the globe to come together and celebrate the Lunar New Year.

But since the pandemic hit in early 2020, people have had to forego many in-person celebrations for safety reasons. On top of that, there’s been a rise in hate crimes as people unjustly blame Asian Americans for the coronavirus.

After a difficult two years, two young Asian Americans are opting not to celebrate this Lunar New Year, but instead to reflect on the meaning of the holiday.

For Grace Shu Gerloff, one of her earliest memories of celebrating Lunar New Year was at a gathering for the group, Families with Children from China.

The organization connects parents who adopted children from the country.

Gerloff grew up in a white family with her adopted sister in Minneapolis, where the annual event featured traditional lion dancers, martial arts, food and music.

She says it was one of the few moments of cultural exposure Gerloff had to her heritage.

"This was a space that existed and kind of an annual reminder that I'm adopted because my Chinese-ness or Asian-ness didn't really come up much through everyday interactions with my family."

Looking back on it now, it's interesting to see and think about all these parents that were really trying the best they could to impart these aspects of Chinese culture.
Grace Shu Gerloff

Though Gerloff recognizes the efforts her parents made to connect her with her birth culture, she explains the experience felt inauthentic.

"Looking back on it now, it's interesting to see and think about all these parents that were really trying the best they could to impart these aspects of Chinese culture, what they understood to be Chinese culture on their children,” Gerloff said.

Meanwhile, Kyle Chong was adopted from Taiwan by a Chinese family in San Francisco. He remembers celebrating Lunar New Year with multiple generations of his family.

"We got all of our elders together to really share in that tradition of that traditional Cantonese American meal. That eight-course meal with the jellyfish, the long life noodles, all the good stuff,” Chong said.

But the pandemic changed many aspects of how we gather.

Along with the loss of in-person celebrations, Asian Americans have become targets of hate fueled by coronavirus misinformation.

Between March 2020 and July 2021, Asian Americans reported 9,000 incidents of discrimination. That’s according to STOP AAPI Hate, a coalition that documents acts of racism.

That’s made Gerloff more hesitant to celebrate in-person.

“What would happen if we're all clustered together in one room and easily attackable? Like, I think probably wouldn’t have gone to any events,” she said.

Since the pandemic started, I can't recall a time when I wanted to even celebrate the Lunar New Year especially because of the ways in which anti-Asian racism and xenophobia have become more prominent.
Kyle Chong

Chong says the string of violence has had an impact on the overall mood during this time of celebration.

"Since the pandemic started, I can't recall a time when I wanted to even celebrate the Lunar New Year especially because of the ways in which anti-Asian racism and xenophobia have become more prominent as a result of the coronavirus pandemic,” Chong said.

Gerloff and Chong have decided not to celebrate the 2022 Lunar New Year. Instead, they’re using this time to envision what the holiday could look like in the future.

That could mean multiple generations of Asian American families gathering to have discussions about racial and ethnic solidarity, on top of the usual traditions.

"I know that anti-Blackness in the Asian American community is pretty intense, and runs pretty deep as well,” Gerloff said.

Chong agrees.

"They can be moments in which those important conversations can be had about anti-Black racism, in particular, in this country."

They say the holiday can be used to build connections not only between generations but also across pan-ethnic groups that make up the Asian American diaspora.

“As someone who's Taiwanese American, the Lunar New Year is just as much part of my history and my culture as it is someone from mainland China,” Chong said.

Gerloff echoes that sentiment.

“Being able to understand that Asian American means so much more than just being 100% Han Chinese or Korean or anything like that, but being able to say the Lunar New Year is for you as well."

Being able to understand that Asian American means so much more than just being 100% Han Chinese or Korean or anything like that, but being able to say the Lunar New Year is for you as well.
Grace Shu Gerloff

Gerloff hopes once the pandemic subsides, the holiday can be a time for her to choose how to celebrate, in contrast with her childhood experience.

"Being able to celebrate that and celebrate that on my own terms and not being told, 'This is how you celebrate it,' by my parents or other adoptive agencies."

The year preceding the pandemic, Gerloff attended an event in Detroit hosted by other Asian Americans.

She said she would like to attend a similar celebration in the future because of the sense of community it builds.

"It wasn't just about 'You're adopted, that's why we're celebrating.' But it's just this is also a holiday that a large portion of the global population celebrates," she said.

"Let's celebrate it together."

Just like the Lunar New Year represents new beginnings, Chong and Gerloff hope the holiday can signify a new way to embrace their identities.

Megan Schellong is the local host and producer for Morning Edition on WKAR.
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