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For Asian adoptees, Lunar New Year is a reclamation of identity

Two Korean-American and two Chinese-American women pose next to each other in a line. They're each wearing some variation of red and black on their shirts. Each of the women is holding a plate of fried dumplings, made of minced pork and Chinese chives. They are all smiling.
Megan Schellong
/
WKAR-MSU
From far left: Brady Velazquez, Megan Schellong, Meaghan Kozar, and Ting Westra.

For East, Southeast Asians and Asian Americans across the globe, the Lunar New Year is the biggest holiday — a time to gather with family and eat good food.

But for some adoptees raised in non-Asian households, this time of year hasn't always been marked by fortunes and firecrackers.

Instead, the Lunar New Year has become a reclamation of a long-lost history.

Typically, the holiday kicks off the night before the big day, when families reunite and enjoy a huge feast.

Today, people eat steamed fish, (鱼 yú in Mandarin because it sounds like “surplus,") noodles (面, miàn), representing long life and prosperity, and of course dumplings (饺子, Jiǎozi), which are eaten because of their resemblance to money blocks and coins.

Steamed pork dumplings presented on a plate. Dumplings are commonly eaten during the Lunar New Year to symbolize fortune and prosperity.
Megan Schellong
/
WKAR-MSU
Steamed pork dumplings presented on a plate. Dumplings are commonly eaten during the Lunar New Year to symbolize fortune and prosperity.

The Lunar New Year is also a time when people deck their houses with red scrolls emblazoned with Chinese characters like 幸福 (xingfú), meaning "happiness," 祝福 (zhùfú) for "blessing" and 身体健康 (shēntǐ jiànkāng) meaning "good health."

Growing up as a transracial adoptee, my house wasn’t necessarily dressed head-to-toe in red, nor were the two sides of our families brought together for a big meal. It was just me, mom and dad.

Lunar New Year for me usually meant going out for Chinese food and receiving the classic red envelope, called hóngbāo (红宝 ) with money inside, and that was pretty much the extent of our celebration.

After immersing myself in the adoptee community in East Lansing, I found more people who shared a similar story as me who I could celebrate the Lunar New Year with.

I invited Brady Velazquez over to make dumplings. She walked in wearing a red t-shirt with white text from actress Sandra Oh’s 2019 Emmy’s acceptance speech: “It’s an honor just to be Asian.”

"I'm going to wear it because, you know, queen mother Sandra Oh,” Velazquez said.

Velazquez sat down at the veggie station with a filling prepared the night before made of Chinese chives, shredded carrots, cabbage and shiitake mushrooms. Velazquez was adopted from Incheon, South Korea in 1984 by white parents and was raised in Dearborn with her siblings, adoptees from Korea and Colombia.

“We grew up very, I would say, very American, but with some German sprinkles.”

“We grew up very, I would say, very American, but with some German sprinkles,” Velazquez said.

Her childhood is full of memories in the kitchen — from cooking lessons with grandma to baking with her pastry chef aunt. Velazquez grew up learning a lot about German food and traditions. But now that she’s older, Velazquez said she’s thinking more about how she wants to honor her Korean heritage.

"I do make tteokguk (떡국), so we do eat the Korean rice cake soup. And this year, I'm getting together with some of my friends and we're going to do hot pot. So kind of just making it our own, right?” Velazquez said.

As she portions out each of the fillings into the dumpling skin, Velazquez said getting to this point of celebration, hasn’t been easy. She said making tteokguk this time of year is tied to complex feelings, like the trauma of being relinquished as a baby and being cut off from her culture.

"I think there's maybe a fear sometimes that like if I don't do it, do I lose myself again? Do I have to start over again, then, right?”

"I think there's maybe a fear sometimes that like if I don't do it, do I lose myself again? Do I have to start over again, then, right?” she said.

And Velazquez's experience isn't uncommon.

For other adoptees, like 21-year-old Ting Westra, who was adopted from China at age 5, celebrating this holiday is important to her because it wasn’t a big part of her childhood.

Dumplings can be steamed or fried, here they are pictured after being fried to a crisp, golden brown.
Megan Schellong
/
WKAR-MSU
Dumplings can be steamed or fried, here they are pictured after being fried to a crisp, golden brown.

"It was just like, red envelope, Chinese food,” Westra said. “And that was about it. But now that I'm older, I'm at college, I found some other adoptee friends who also want to connect to the cultural connection."

Westra said gathering with other adoptees during the Lunar New Year is another form of grasping onto the parts of her identity that she can.

"I hope to hold some cultural connection with myself. I'm very assimilated to the American culture. So, I think just holding on as much as I can,” Westra said.

Other adoptees like Meaghan Kozar agree that it hasn’t been easy to reconnect.

“Celebrating Asian holidays was just something that was removed from me, because it just wasn't normal for me,” Kozar said. “When trying to celebrate them, it just felt unnatural.”

Kozar was also adopted from Korea, and like me, she didn’t grow up making dumplings during this holiday.

"It's about redefining yourself as an Asian American. It's the fortune cookie that was created and invented in the U.S.”

Throughout her life, Kozar said she felt distant from Korean culture. She was adopted by two white parents and grew up in a racially isolated area of Minnesota.

While Kozar spent much of her childhood wanting to assimilate to whiteness, she later took pride in her identity as a person of color in college — when she attended speeches of Black activists like singer Harry Belafonte and Khalid Abdul Muhammad, the former leader of the New Black Panther Party.

"It was for the first time I was in that audience and I was so proud and happy that I was not white,” she said.

Kozar said her identity can't be confined to a simple DNA test result. Instead, she sees her identity as part of something much larger than herself.

"It is about activism,” she said. “It's about Asian American identities. It's about redefining yourself as an Asian American. It's the fortune cookie that was created and invented in the U.S.”

As we finished spooning the fillings into the dumplings and gather around to take a group picture, I was reminded that our collective Asian American identity, like cooking, is what we choose to make of it.

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