My sister FaceTimed me this past weekend and asked, “Jiě, remember how you used to hate this?”
Hate is a strong word, but yes, I did not always look forward to our annual Lunar New Year celebration. I despised the constant chatter, the blasting Chinese folk music, and the awkward interactions with distant family friends.
I had never considered Lunar New Year to be an actual holiday. Lunar New Year is a national holiday in many Asian countries, including China, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Singapore, and is the most anticipated day of the year for my family. Every year, my mother would allow us to skip school on the Friday of Lunar New Year to make the three-hour trek to my uncle’s place, where the celebration would take place. From then on, it was a weekend of festivities. Just looming around the corner, this year’s Lunar New Year will be the first one I spend away from home, away from my family’s rambunctious celebrations.
They say you never truly appreciate something until it’s gone. My heart aches as I see WeChat posts of my family’s most recent celebration. I miss my family’s signature rice cakes, the always delightful exchange of red envelopes, my mom’s overflowing joy displayed through her never-fading smile, and even my uncle’s terrible singing. Now that I’m away from home, Lunar New Year has a new meaning to me. Like many others, I struggled in adjusting to the competitive, pre-professional nature of Penn. I searched for a new identity — one that ignored my Asian half and focused on my American half — because in my confused freshman mind, this was the only way for me to thrive at Penn.
Now, as I grow more comfortable in my second semester freshman skin, I realize that Lunar New Year is a day that must be celebrated, a day that honors the history of my family’s heritage, and a day that reminds me of how proud I am to be Asian — a feeling that I have not had for the most part of my time at Penn.
For some Asian-American students starting college at Penn, which has an Asian undergraduate population of roughly 20 percent, this has been their first exposure to a campus with a relatively large Asian population, and that alone can uplift their Asian identity. It was the opposite for me. Growing up in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles, I was enclosed within a bubble of Asian people. U.S. News reported that my high school was 69 percent Asian. Where I grew up, being Asian was the norm, and in many of my classes throughout my four years of high school, there would not be a single non-Asian person. Boba spots scattered every corner of every street. An Asian supermarket would appear in every 3-mile radius. Authentic Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean food was served on every block. My city, Arcadia, was nicknamed Arcasia.
I desired to escape this bubble. I longed for diversity, where not every person I encountered seemed to be the same Asian American, going to SAT-prep classes, complaining over A-minuses, competing with fellow Asian classmates to get into highly selective colleges, and desiring to fulfill their parents’ wishes of them becoming a doctor or engineer. In comparison, Penn, with a smaller Asian population, would be a refreshing change.
One semester into Penn, I found myself drifting away from my Asian identity. I desired to assimilate, and I eagerly crossed out Asian cultural groups from my list of clubs I wanted to join. I considered the act of heavily involving myself with these groups as seeking safety and comfort. With the exception of a select few friends, I stopped talking about my love for Korean pop music, my concerns towards aspects of Asian American culture, and anything that would trace me back to my Asian heritage.
Only towards the end of first semester, I started to feel a void in my identity. I realized I could never cut out my Asian heritage no matter how hard I try to neglect it — it’s the part of me that connects me to my family and an essential part of what makes me, me. Attending Asian cultural events, like Asian Pacific American Heritage Week or CSA’s Annual Dumplings Fest, is not a sign of reverting back to my old self, but rather a way to connect and embrace my Asian culture. Talking about topics that linked me to my Asian heritage was not something to be ashamed of, but rather an act that must take place in order for me to paint the full picture of who I am with the most vibrant colors.
I’ve come to appreciate both the abundance of Asian culture in my hometown along with the substantial amount here at Penn. I know that wherever I go, I will bring my Asian culture alongside with me, and Penn makes it easy for that to happen with the abundance of cultural groups, including CSA, HKSA, and KSA, many of which have collaborated on bringing Lunar New Year celebrations to campus.
Whether you are Asian, Hispanic, African American, or any other race, make Penn a new site for sharing stories about your culture and celebrating your family’s heritage. To my fellow Asian students: as much as Penn may warp the image of your self-identity, celebrate the Lunar New Year like you would at home and use this special day to connect and gain an even stronger sense of pride for your Asian identity.
CHRISTY QIU is a College freshman from Arcadia, Calif. studying architecture. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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