NEW YORK—The majority of Westerners would probably say that the Lunar New Year is the Eastern equivalent of the first day of the year. But legend has it that on this day, a battle between good and evil transpired, a tale that carries traditions and culture to this day.
According to legend, over 17 centuries ago, during the Yin-Shang Dynasty, an evil monster lived in the depths of the Yellow River. Every New Year’s Eve, at midnight, the monster would come out onto the land and wreak havoc in the village by eating the people and their livestock.
But one day an old beggar showed up in the village and decided to get rid of the monster. After all the villagers fled to the mountain, he put up a red poster on the door, lit some candles, and when the monster approached his dwelling he set off firecrackers, scarring the monster abruptly.
The monster fled. When the villagers returned and found their homes untouched, they rejoiced and marked the day as a time for a new beginning.
From that day forth they celebrated the Lunar New Year by dressing in their best clothes, hanging up red posters over their doors, and setting off firecrackers. They believed that gods also use firecrackers to get rid of evil in the heavens.
It’s legends like this that remain the cornerstone of cultural reference for Asian families who raise their children in America. For Jianfen Zhou, and her husband Jianda Yuan, raising two girls in their culturally diverse neighborhood of Forest Hills has been rewarding and challenging.
“In her class, there’s not many Chinese kids, so that’s how she struggles,” Zhou said about her 11-year-old daughter, Sherry. To keep her Chinese traditions alive, Zhou and Yuan encourage their daughter to learn how to play traditional Chinese music instruments like the Pipa, a four-stringed Chinese lute.
“We let her speak Chinese at home, so she doesn’t forget her heritage,” Zhou said. This is just one of the ways they can pass on traditions to Sherry and soon to her 1-year-old sister Lotus.
Every New Year’s Eve, when Sherry would be coming home from school, her father would take her to the store and they would browse through the books. Yuan feel fortunate that he is still able to keep close communication with his almost-teenage daughter, something he said is lacking in modern society.
“Sherry just showed me two golden awards from her past two semesters,” he said, “I recognized it, appreciate it.” For him, celebrating the Lunar New Year, means calling his parents back in China, sharing a bowl of dumplings over dinner, and strengthening familial relationships.
They want to pass on traditional Chinese values to their daughters, like the five cardinal virtues of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and faithfulness.
“These are universal values,” Yuan said.
Pushing for Recognition of Lunar New Year in Schools
When Pauline Chu realized that the Chinese New Year was not recognized as a public holiday and that children had to go to school, and were penalized for being absent, she set herself a goal of making the Lunar New Year a citywide celebration.
Chu, who was born in China, came to New York in 1980. She had degrees in teaching and in 1986 was elected to be a community school board member to represent 23 elementary schools and 6 junior high schools in Bayside and Flushing. That year she also founded the Chinese American Parents Association where she still holds the title of president.
“Back in 1986 I raised a question, why do the Jewish get a holiday?” Chu said. She wanted public schools, especially those in Flushing and Chinatown with large populations of Asian students to observe the Lunar New Year as a legal holiday.
According to statistics from the New York City Department of Education (DOE), approximately 14 percent of students in the city’s public school system are Asian-American.
Chu told the Chinese parents in the community to keep their children at home for the Lunar New Year, regardless if their teachers will mark them as absent.
“I remember at one junior high in 1989 half the class had no students,” she said.
“I’m just trying to promote our culture,” she said. She got a lot of encouragement from local leaders, and she started writing letters to lawmakers.
Chu still holds the letter that she wrote to Dr. Joseph A. Fernandez, who was the schools chancellor in 1991, asking for the Lunar New Year to become a legal school holiday.
Officials Move to Make Lunar Year a School Holiday
In 2012, New York City Council members introduced a bill that would mandate all public schools to observe Asian Lunar New Year as a legal holiday.
Last Friday, many of the supporters and council members, including Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, stepped out at the Queens Library in Flushing to push for the bill.
Council member Peter Koo, a Hong Kong native, said in a statement that the occasion is as important as other cultural and religious holidays.
“For too long, parents have had to decide whether to allow their children to take part in Lunar New Year festivities. They should not have to make that choice anymore,” he said.
Schools like P.S. 130, located in lower Manhattan’s Chinatown, for example, had an average absence rate of 80 percent on Lunar New Year.
Another school in Chinatown, P.S. 124, had an absentee rate of 50 percent.
State politicians have tried to pass a similar bill at the state level for years. This year, Assemblyman Ron Kim and Sen. Daniel Squadron co-sponsored a bill that would mandate New York City schools with high probability of absentees on Lunar New Year to consider a school closure.
Kim said that making the Lunar New Year a legal holiday holds much more value than not having to go to school.
“It’s about institutionally telling the world we accept Asian-Americans as part of American culture,” Kim said.