Although Jenny Chung (NHS ’23) spent this Lunar New Year quarantining at her home in Seoul, South Korea, being able to spend extra time with her parents and reconnect with her Korean identity made it more meaningful than usual.
“I think it will be a fond memory for me. This entire experience of just being at home during the school year has just really been very special to me,” Chung said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya. “Ten years from now, I’ll look back and remember this Lunar New Year and be like, ‘Oh, I remember when, because of COVID, I was back at home with family.’”
Unable to celebrate with her extended family, a typical practice for Chung’s family under normal circumstances, Chung had a more intimate celebration this year, which included cooking tteokguk, a traditional Korean rice cake soup, with her mom and learning about the history behind the dish.
“It did give us an opportunity to really delve into the culture that surrounds tteokguk and things like that,” Chung said. “Being able to talk to my mom about tteokguk and what it means in Korean culture and learning about all these things about my identity was just really special.”
Although many in the United States view Lunar New Year as an exclusively Chinese holiday, Lunar New Year is celebrated throughout East and Southeast Asia. The holiday marks the first new moon of the lunisolar calendar, which occurred Feb. 12 this year. Traditions vary from country to country, but Lunar New Year celebrations generally include spending time with the entire family and eating food, like dumplings in China and tteokguk in South Korea, together.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and distance learning, international students would usually be on campus during Lunar New Year, so celebrating the holiday at home with family would be all but impossible. For many of Georgetown University’s international students from East and Southeast Asia, however, one of the few silver linings of the pandemic has been the opportunity to spend Lunar New Year at home with family for the first time in years.
Celebrating from Afar
As one of the most important holidays in East and Southeast Asia, Lunar New Year often sees widespread celebrations. China, for example, famously experiences mass migration as people travel around the country to visit relatives. In 2019, nearly 3 billion trips took place around the country for the holiday.
To students like Haripoom Prasutchai (SFS ’21), who is currently living at his home in Bangkok Lunar New Year is especially impactful because of the family connection that is felt during festivities.
“Lunar New Year is kind of like Thanksgiving for Americans. It’s the family gathering where you have almost everyone from our family have dinner,” Prasutchai said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya.“Because of the importance of New Year, all of our families put extra effort into being there. I think everyone is just in a more excited mindset to celebrate the cohesion of the family.”
To mitigate being away from home during Lunar New Year, Georgetown’s international students have held events and celebrations in an attempt to mimic typical festivities. In January 2020, for example, the Georgetown Collaborative Diplomacy Initiative, a graduate student organization that seeks to educate students on current diplomatic issues, hosted an event to celebrate Chinese New Year in the Healey Family Student Center Social Room, which over 130 students attended.
Celebrations at Georgetown are hampered by the lack of a family presence, however, according to Prasutchai, who, until this year, had not celebrated Lunar New Year in Bangkok for three years.
“I definitely felt FOMO because every February or January, we would get a family photo in the group chat every year, and they would all be like, ‘Oh, wish you were here,’” Prasutchai said. “It’s the first photo we show to other people to say, ‘This is our family,’ and I would not be in it, so that’s definitely the most difficult part for me.”
Many family members of international students also noticed a change in celebrations. Up until this year, Runzhong Xu (COL ’21) had celebrated the past seven Lunar New Years apart from his family because he went to boarding school in Atlanta before attending Georgetown.
Not being able to celebrate at home took a toll on his family, according to Xu, who is currently at home in Shenzhen, China.
“I’m also the oldest son in my family, so it’s also pretty sad for my grandparents to see their oldest grandson being far away in a distant country and not being able to share in the celebrations,” Xu said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya. “A big part of Chinese New Year culture and tradition is also to return to your homeland, so the idea of the homeland is very essential to Chinese New Year celebration.”
For Xu, the first couple years of being away from home for Lunar New Year were especially difficult. Xu found ways to celebrate with friends in the United States, such as watching the New Year’s Gala, a celebratory variety show on China Central Television, China’s state run broadcasting agency. However, he said the celebrations hardly compared to the festivities he was used to at home.
“I sort of got used to it and found ways to celebrate together with my friends. We would watch the gala. We would have our own event,” Xu said. “But all of those cannot replace the actual experience of being with your family, which is the most important part.”
Restricted Festivities Amid COVID-19
As life begins to return to normal in China after the outbreak of COVID-19, this year’s celebrations look very different from last year’s, when Lunar New Year coincided with the first outbreaks of the virus: Lunar New Year fell on Jan. 25, 2020, while the World Health Organization’s Emergency Committee declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on Jan. 30.
The Emergency Committee decision resulted in canceled or diminished celebrations and general pandemic safety concerns, as cities throughout China went on lockdown.
For Jinru Liu (COL ’21), who was at her home in Zhongshan, China, during last year’s Lunar New Year celebrations, the typical traditions — such as watching the famous New Year’s Gala — were hampered by lockdowns as the COVID-19 outbreak intensified across China.
“People were nervous about COVID. No people come out on the street, no fireworks. Last year was just quiet, very intense, very stressed out about the pandemic,” Liu said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya. “And all day instead of watching the celebratory New Year Gala by CCTV, we sat watching the numbers going up.”
The Chinese government first instituted travel lockdowns in Wuhan in January 2020, and the rest of Hubei province was locked down shortly thereafter. These restrictions were enacted shortly before the 2020 Lunar New Year, which started Jan. 25 that year. Lockdowns in the Hubei province were not lifted until March 24, nearly two months after Lunar New Year, and Wuhan’s strict lockdown was not lifted until two weeks later.
Xu’s parents were at home in Shenzhen during last year’s Lunar New Year amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I can’t believe it’s already been a year,” Xu said. “My parents stayed home for almost two months without going out, and that Lunar New Year was essentially spoiled because of COVID.”
Though COVID-19 marked last year’s Lunar New Year in China, this year’s celebrations are more dynamic as the pandemic appears to be subsiding and life returning to normal for many people in China. China currently sees about 20 new COVID-19 cases every day, compared to about 70,000 daily cases in the United States, according to The New York Times. However, China’s COVID-19 statistics are also disputed by the U.S. government.
Pandemic-related restrictions still remain throughout the country, however. Ahead of this Lunar New Year, the Chinese government implemented new travel restrictions in an effort to limit the typical wave of migration throughout the country around the holiday. These restrictions make it especially difficult to visit rural areas of the country.
Cases have subsided enough, though, that many people are celebrating as normal in cities, like those who gathered in Wuhan’s streets to celebrate on New Year’s Eve. In Zhongshan, with movie theaters selling out of tickets and people feeling comfortable going to parks again, the differences between Lunar New Year this year and last year are clear, Liu said.
“Everything is pretty much back to normal, at least in my city. People definitely feel more relaxed this year,” Liu said. “If you compare this year’s Chinese New Year to the past, they’re pretty much the same.”
The normalcy of this year’s holiday is what makes it so special, especially when compared to last year’s difficulties, according to Bill Zheng (COL ’21), who is currently home in Beijing after spending the previous seven Lunar New Years at school in the United States.
“Definitely last year was challenging. People weren’t able to get together. I think that only makes this year’s Chinese New Year more valuable,” Zheng said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya.
New Year, New Meaning
Although being at home during a pandemic is less than ideal, this year’s celebrations were distinct for many of Georgetown’s Asian international students, given that for many this was the first chance for them to celebrate Lunar New Year with families and reconnect with old traditions in several years.
Being able to spend the holiday with family was a silver lining of the pandemic, according to Prapada Kanjanachusak (MSB ’22), who spent Lunar New Year at her home in Thailand for the first time since 2014.
“Being home for Lunar New Year this year was an opportunity that I’m grateful for,” Kanjanachusak wrote in an email to The Hoya. “I feel like I was able to find luck and love by being able to come home to Thailand and celebrate the new year with all my family members, including my siblings and cousins who also came back to Thailand due to the virus.”
Even though this Lunar New Year is still different from past ones because of ongoing government restrictions, being at home still left Xu feeling immense happiness in an otherwise bleak time.
“My parents were really happy that I was able to be with them and be home this year, and we were able to do celebrations together,” Xu said. “I was only able to participate remotely when I was in America before, and this is the first time I was actually able to actively engage in making dumplings, talking to my bigger family.”
This year’s celebrations were also particularly joyful for Zheng, as he was able to reunite with several family members.
“This year, I see a full family. We have never seen that many people for the past seven or eight years,” Zheng said. “You see family reunion. You see happiness.”
For Prasutchai, being home led him to reminisce on celebrations from when he was younger, such as walking around his house on Lunar New Year and offering everyone elaborate “Happy New Year” wishes before receiving red envelopes of money. This year, he witnessed his nieces take on that role.
“It was just so funny to see my nieces doing the same. They would go around and just find creative ways to flatter their aunts, their grandparents, their uncles — same as I did,” Prasutchai said.
For some students like Chung, this year’s Lunar New Year celebrations also came with the realization this would likely be the last Lunar New Year they would spend at home before graduating from Georgetown.
“Once I realized that, it made me value the time I spend with my family more — not even just on the day of Lunar New Year, just every single day, having dinner together or doing chores together,” Chung said. “The realization started off with Lunar New Year, but then it kind of expanded to a realization that I have already probably left home semipermanently, and that just made me value every minute I’ve spent back here that much more.”
Reconnecting with family led this year’s celebrations to be among Kanajanachusak’s all-time favorite memories of the Lunar New Year holiday.
“It was a nice and warm feeling of being able to be surrounded by loved ones. It was also an opportunity to reconnect with older relatives and distant cousins who I hadn’t seen in a long time,” Kanjanachusak wrote. “While I don’t really remember the last Lunar New Year I celebrated with my family, this Lunar New Year was probably the best one that I’ve ever celebrated so far.”