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Cultural Connections: How Transracial Adoptees Celebrate Lunar New Year

Updated: Sep 24, 2023

This month, over 1.5 billion people across the globe from different cultural backgrounds are celebrating Lunar New Year. In Chinese culture, the Lunar New Year is one of the largest and most culturally significant celebrations. From hongbao to haircuts and long-life noodles to night-long activities, the fifteen-day-long celebration is packed with many important traditions and superstitions to help ring in a new year.

Yet for Chinese transracial adoptees, the celebration of the Lunar New Year looks slightly different.

Despite being born in China and being of Chinese ethnic descent, Chinese transracial adoptees are adopted into non-Chinese families residing in different countries and, consequently, experience a disconnect from Chinese culture. Subsequently, many adoptees and their adoptive families have adopted non-conventional traditions to celebrate Lunar New Year.

Growing up a Chinese transracial adoptee in the United States, I never felt fully connected to Chinese culture. My parents attempted to expose me to cultural events in my area, but I never felt a sense of belonging or inclusion. This feeling extended to Lunar New Year celebrations; my family would celebrate by decorating our house, going out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and exchanging hongbao, or red envelopes containing money and gifts.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that I am not alone in this sentiment. Countless Chinese adoptees around the world have had a similar experience to me where our adoptive parents have attempted to celebrate with us, though there is some disconnect from the culture that was essentially taken from us. As we’ve grown into our own identities as young adults, many of us have found new adaptive ways to celebrate the holiday.

Chinese adoptee Miki Kent says she learned about Chinese New Year from her white cousins who lived in China. “My family always looked for ways to expose me to Chinese traditions and introduced me to Chinese family friends who would invite us to celebrations and parties. Many Lunar New Years I spent time with other adoptees from our agency at an Asian buffet, during the dragon dancing events. It was always so comforting to be around the other girls I was adopted with.”

As an adult, Kent likes to spend Lunar New Year going out to dinner at an Asian American restaurant and going on adventures looking for mooncakes locally. She wears something red along with her jade bracelet gifted to her as a baby.

Others have found ways to celebrate with others in the adoptee community. Chinese adoptee Shelley Rottenberg looks back fondly on receiving red envelopes from her adoptive mother during childhood. Rottenberg was raised in Ontario by a single-mother of Jewish descent. Although Shelly often felt removed from the culture, she credits her mother for trying her best to connect her with Chinese culture and traditions such as Lunar New Year. She remembers meeting up with other adoptive families through different organizations to Lunar New Year together.

“All of the families would get together at one family's house,” Rottenberg explained. “They would have like a little box at the front where you could pick like a red envelope, they would do fireworks. And so as a kid, I celebrated it to a certain extent with other adoptees, but I don't think I thought about all of that as much as I do now. So as a kid, it's like, maybe I should have appreciated it a bit more.”

Now as an adult, Rottenberg celebrates Lunar New Year with friends she made through her involvement with the organization Asian Adoptees of Canada. This is her first year of involvement in the Lunar New Year festivities, and she expressed her excitement prior to the event.

This year, Rottenberg joined the members of her organization in attendance at a Lunar New Year festival and grabbed lunch at a restaurant after. This was also her first year celebrating Lunar New Year with a large group of adoptees since childhood.

“I feel like I'm coming full circle by helping kind of plan and create that community for other adoptees to get together to do something,” shared Rottenberg. “Otherwise, they maybe wouldn't know how to celebrate on their own.”

Likewise, Eryn Peritz, a Chinese adoptee from Long Island, New York, and current student at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania was also able to connect with Chinese culture and celebrate Lunar New Year through an organization she founded at her college called Bi-Co Asian Adoptees.

“We're going to have a big or hopefully big decorating event where we go around camping and decorations like banners and fishes,” she explained prior to the holiday. “I'm very excited about it because I finally founded this club this year. I hope to include other adoptees in it and I hope that when people pass by the decorations, it’ll make them really happy.”

Others have only more recently begun to truly look into traditions of Lunar New Year. “I wasn't quite aware of how deep and how complex these traditions went until later on, when I learned for myself these little things of what you're supposed to be doing. What's traditional, what kind of celebrations are out there,” said Jack Freeman, Chinese adoptee from the United Kingdom.

When he and his sisters were younger, Freeman’s family mainly celebrated by cooking stir fry and eating prawn crackers at home. They also exchanged red envelopes with money. As Jack got older and gained more of a desire to learn about Chinese culture, he began his own traditions to celebrate.

Freeman admits it has been tough finding a group of people or friends that celebrate Lunar New Year, he decided to embrace the culture in his own way. This year, Freeman spent Lunar New Year in London amid the celebrations within the city.

For Lunar New Year, even though I don't feel fully connected with the celebrations and the traditions, I still want to celebrate in some way or do something around it,” admitted Freeman. “Because at the end of the day, it is part of my identity.”

Despite having a large shared experience and collective identity, there are ultimately so many different Asian communities across the diaspora and many different aspects of Asian identity, and transracial adoptees are ultimately a small community within that. Chinese adoptees have a different shared experience from many others who celebrate Lunar New Year, and it is important to represent these experiences whenever possible.

As Chinese adoptees find new ways to come into their Chinese identity and celebrate the traditions of the culture that has been taken away, it is always important to keep sharing these stories not only for other adoptees, but for the larger Asian community as well. Despite the disconnect from Chinese culture, adoptees remain a strong community and will continue to find new ways to celebrate their birth culture.

Editors: Blenda Y., Phoebe H., Alisha B., Lang D.


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