Chinese New Year, Without the Stereotypes

3 years ago

The Year of the Sheep (or Goat) begins today. In honor of the Lunar New Year, also known as the Chinese New Year, celebrations last for two weeks in many Asian societies, and there are parades and festivities in U.S. cities with large Asian American communities.

While it’s all fun, there’s also an ugly element that raises its head during this season, and it looks like this:

Image: Party Cheap

Watch Out For Stereotypes

Chinese New Year sometimes brings out the jerks who think they need to bow and yell “Gung hay fat chow!” at every Asian person they come across.

Then there are the decorations. I’ve seen and materials for Chinese New Year that feature chop stick lettering and outdated stereotypes, such as coolies with queues. Party supply stores can sometimes be the biggest violators in this area! Perhaps this is obvious to many of you, but some people might not be aware that they are actually perpetuating racial stereotypes in the attempt to foster cultural diversity.

Jen DeCristoforo, the author of Lucky Bamboo Book of Crafts, who is the white mother of an adopted Chinese daughter, encountered these representations at a Lunar New Year event in her Maine community. She told me how she handled the situation:

"A couple of years ago I single-handedly had a coolie hat craft pulled from our local, large Chinese New Year celebration. Something about it just was so off-putting to me and I didn't want my leadership in the event to be associated with hundreds of people walking around in their paper hats. What bothered me more was that no one else seemed to "get it" (or wouldn't speak up)." 

I try to be proactive, volunteering to go into my kids’ classes to read books and lead culturally appropriate crafts and festivities. On my HapaMama blog, I have lists of books for the Lunar New Year for different age groups, and I’ve also written some tips on teaching kids about Chinese New Year.

Image Credit: maywong_photos, via Flickr

5 Ways to Celebrate Chinese New Year, Without Stereotypes

1. Decorate Kids are visual learners and notice things even adults don't. Consider using banners or signs featuring the zodiac animal of the upcoming year, which can often be purchased at Asian grocery stores or shopping malls. Red banners featuring Chinese poetry in gold characters are also a popular way to add a festive touch. If you don't have access to those decorations, even simple red streamers or homemade lanterns can be appropriate.

2. Read There are many picture books dealing with the Lunar New Year (remember, many Asian societies celebrate this holiday, also called Tet in Vietnamese or Seollal in Korean). See my list of Chinese New Year books for kids and also chapter books for older kids. Also, consider books such as Ten Mice for Tet or New Clothes for New Year's Day, which is set in Korea.

3. Make You don't need to go to a specialty store to decorate for the new year. I've made paper lanterns, banners and puppets just with construction paper and glitter. Lucky Bamboo Book of Crafts offers some easy projects for kids as young as three, complete with templates for many of them.

4. Give Traditionally, cash -- preferably crisp bills -- in a hong bao (red envelope) is the gift for Chinese New Year. I know many Americans feel uncomfortable about giving money, but in many Asian cultures there is not that stigma associated with cash gifts. One dollar would be plenty if you're distributing to every child in the class. It's hard for kids to resist opening the hong bao right away, but explain that the envelopes are supposed to be opened after the giver is no longer there.

5. Eat Delicious foods are a key part of celebrating the new year. While ubiquitous at Chinese restaurants in the United States, fortune cookies are not a traditional Chinese food.

  • Dumplings represent prosperity. If you don't have time to make them from scratch, you could cook the frozen potstickers sold in big bags at Costco, or even order them from a restaurant.
  • Noodles represent long life. Plain wheat noodles seasoned with a little soy sauce and sesame oil would be a good idea for young kids.
  • Oranges and tangerines symbolize luck and their bright color is reminiscent of gold. Many kids love the easy-to-peel mandarins that come in big boxes, so they'd make a healthy classroom snack.
  • Candy in shiny red and gold wrappers or White Rabbit chews are sweet -- literally, and figuratively. Chocolate coins or individually wrapped gummy candies in flavors like lychee or mango might also be a fun choice.

Remember, young children are like little sponges that absorb what they’re exposed to. So put away your fans and gongs, and certainly don’t put any chopsticks into your hair. Teaching kids accurate and respectful representations of culture is something we can all do.

Happy Year of the Sheep/Goat!

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs about raising an Asian mixed-race family at HapaMama.

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