8 Ways To Celebrate Lunar New Year While Avoiding Cultural Appropriation

Today, millions of people around the world will come together and celebrate Lunar New Year, the first day of the lunisolar calendar. Lunar New Year is determined by the first cycle of the moon on the first month of the year, which is traditionally considered a sacred time. Each year, an animal is chosen to represent the new year, based on a twelve-year cycle. This year is the Year of the Monkey.

In many countries in Asia, Lunar New Year is the equivalent to American New Year’s Eve. If you think NYE is a big deal in the U.S., know that Lunar New Year in China is an even bigger deal, as it is celebrated for up to 15 days while restaurants, shops, and businesses are all closed. Other Asian countries also celebrate the holiday for more than a day. For instance, in Korea and Vietnam, it is celebrated for three days.

Though many people from many backgrounds take part in Lunar New Year festivities, I believe it is cultural appropriation for those who aren't of Asian ancestry to celebrate the holiday by participating in traditional activities, such as handing out red envelopes, hanging red lanterns in their homes for good luck, or wearing culturally specific clothes. Though you might feel like taking part in these activities is harmless fun, doing so can actually negatively impact the experiences of people of Asian ancestry. My family and others might disagree with me and say that it's wonderful if non-Asians want to learn more about our heritage, but I feel like this is the only time of year when I can be proud of where I came from, and I want to cherish it.

When I was young and asked if I could stay home for the holiday during the Lunar New Year, my mother first said I had to go to school and there was no way around it. But as I grew older, she allowed me to skip school for the day because she wanted me to be able to preserve my heritage by taking part in celebrations. When I celebrated Lunar New Year as a kid, my extended family and I would go to my grandmother's house to pay respect to our elders by lighting incense and saying prayers. We'd have a big homemade meal and burn paper money in the fireplace to send wealth to our dead ancestors. This was the time I got to see my cousins from around the state and bond with them, which I deeply cherished as an only child. I always felt a little sad at the end of the day, knowing I'd have to be back in school tomorrow.

This memory was present in my mind last year, when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio endorsed Lunar New Year as an official holiday in NYC public schools, giving all students the day off. For the first time as a Taiwanese-American, I felt like my ancestry mattered in this country.

While I feel that it is disrespectful for people who are not of Asian descent to celebrate the holiday in a traditional manner, I've often wondered where to draw the line between appreciation and appropriation. There are, I believe, ways that people from other backgrounds can explore the ideas of Lunar New Year without exploiting them or misunderstanding them. Here are eight that are meaningful to me.

1. Remember That It’s Important To Love

The Lunar New Year is about coming home to your happiness. It’s about spending time with your loved ones, be they blood-related or otherwise. Sharing your presence with your friends or family helps you maintain the important relationships you have in your life. This is why in the time around the Lunar New Year, tourism and travel rates skyrocket. Travelers may spend days commuting back home to their loved ones, but it is worth the wait. So celebrate by making time for the people in your life whom you love the most.

2. Engage In Some Therapeutic Tidying Up

Before the start of the new year, it is traditional to turn your house upside-down in a cleaning frenzy; it is believed that doing so will sweep the bad vibes out of one’s home. Even the messiest people (like me) can be motivated to clean before the holiday. I have spent hours scrubbing and bleaching everything in sight until there was not a speck of dust left. This tidying up can produce a sense of calm, and can be relaxing for families who are hosting before the mania ensues. But even if you're not hosting guests, it's still a good activity to take part in. Really, have you ever regretted cleaning your home?

3. Eat Something Delicious

The Lunar New Year has certain foods tied to it, just like Thanksgiving. We eat comfort foods to celebrate our new year. Dumplings, oranges, noodles, and whole fish, all of which symbolize longevity and good fortune, are often on the menu, and eating sweets can bring more sweetness for you this year. When I eat these foods, I’m inspired to try new things from different cultures. Somehow, it reminds me of how much I can explore in the world. So why not spend this day eating all the foods that make you happy?

4. Redo Your Wardrobe

I’ve always enjoyed the part of the holiday that involves getting some new clothes. My mother would give me her credit card and drop my cousins and me off at the mall — a tradition we continued from middle school up until we left for college. It’s also the time of year when we buy new underwear and shoes. If you were born in the Year of the Monkey, it’s strongly advised that you wear red (thought to bring positive energy), even in your undergarments, until the next Lunar New Year.

This is also a great time to go through your closet and pick out items that you no longer wear — a recurring theme for the Lunar New Year releasing the old in order to make space for the new. My family always dropped bags of our clothing at the Sanitation Army before the New Year. Giving away my belongings taught me that the material world is ephemeral and fancy clothes aren’t a necessity — always a good value to ponder at the start of a new year.

5. Remember That Nature Is Sacred

Lunar New Year is based off the 12 zodiac animals and five elements (metal, water, fire, wood, earth), which symbolize the harmony of nature. Even if you don’t believe in horoscopes or such symbolism, there’s no denying that our ancestors respected nature. Mine even based an entire calendar off the moon! Cultures around the world all share that reverence for nature, from the Sumerians to Native Americans to the ancient Greeks. This holiday is a reminder for me to respect all living things, and to remember to take better care of the Earth. I am definitely better at recycling and composting around the New Year, and I always try to spend time outside, even if there's a blizzard.

6. Change Up Your Hair

Before the New Year starts, we flock to salons and reinvent our hair, whether it’s through tiny trims or a whole new look. Cutting our hair is another symbol of releasing old baggage. Though you want to make sure to get your salon visits in before the actual New Year, since washing your hair on Lunar New Year is considered washing away good luck.

You may be wondering what not washing your hair has to do with your fortune, but what these superstitions remind us of is faith. It’s about having faith in your future — which is what anyone observes in any spiritual practice.

7. Take Care Of Your Business

On the actual day of the New Year, superstition holds that it is bad to borrow money or collect debts. These financial matters should be taken care of in the weeks beforehand. So if you have any outstanding financial matters to settle, leave them for the future). It is thought that actions taken on the first day of the year will set the tone for the rest of the year. Thus, you should take care of your financial situations before they become a burden. The only money that should be exchanged on the New Year should be what elders give their unmarried children, nieces, and nephews in red envelopes. Since February is still technically the beginning of the Gregorian calendar, you can use this time as a fresh start in case your January didn’t turn out the way you wanted.

8. Celebrate Your Own Heritage

If anything, Lunar New Year can teach us to be proud of our own personal backgrounds. Growing up, I barely learned about my mother country in school, and seeing my family celebrating this holiday has inspired me to learn more about where we come from. Each country has its own unique history and cultural identity, and I hope that learning more about this ancient holiday and its meaning can make you proud of who you are today.

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