Author Archives: Emma Clarke

Chinese New Year in a Taiwanese-American home

“It’s just my nuclear family that’s here in America. So it’s my mom, my dad, sister, and me. So ‘family’ constitutes as, you know, those four and then just anyone who’s Taiwanese that we see, they’re considered family. So for Chinese New Year gatherings, we would gather together with like–probably like six other families, and we would do Chinese things.

So what we do as Taiwanese Americans… Normally you get together with every part of your family–like, mom’s, dad’s sides. But again, we’re just the four of us. So we just gather with these other families who are also just here by themselves. Um. So we all get together in one of our houses, like every year, we go to a different person’s house.

And, uh…there’s really no structure to it. Because I was a kid, so you know, you sit at the kids’ table, and then, um… So there’s food, there’s a lot of food. My family’s vegetarian…that’s–that’s the whole Buddhist part. So there’s…we go for the vegetarian option. But then the other families aren’t all Buddhist, so um…they…usually order take out. So part of it they cook, the other part is like, ‘too lazy, might as well just order.’

Um. And so, we usually just go and get food. And then the adults hang out upstairs and we hang out in the basement–like the lounge slash TV–wherever the TV is, the kids gravitate towards. So we play, like, video games.

And then there’s the transition after dinner, like when most people are done eating. Then we take turns, family by family, where you sit–the mom and dad on chairs, like in the lounge. And then you have the kids kind of sit and bow in front of them, and they kind of like–this is where you, like, ask for the red envelope. Where you have to earn it.

Which is–so, in Chinese New Year culture, you have the parents–I don’t know why we do this–the parents give a gift of monetary value in the form of a red envelope to the children. Um. Oh God, I don’t even know why. It’s probably–it’s a sense of good luck, and fortune. It means–it’s a metaphor for something. I don’t know what it is. I’m sure there’s a whole ritual for it, in China or Taiwan, but it’s like distilled down into, like: ‘Okay, the parents sit here. Okay, uh, ask for your red envelopes. In Chinese! In the broken Chinese that you have.’

And so you do that. And then there’s some hugging. And then, like…Asian families are a lot less vocal, about their emotions. It’s like, the love is just insinuated, like, “Oh yeah, I make food for you every night. I love you.” But here, it’s like, kinda awkward. You kinda wanna say it, but then it’s like… So. That happens. It’s, like, awkward. And, like…yeah.

So then each family does that. Oh, and when we were really young? They had us perform before that. So, like, there’d be a violin performance, and then another violin performance. And I think that’s about all we did. And then as we got older, it was just–go straight for it. Everyone just got too lazy.

And then after that, we would go back to eating and playing video games. And then cake. Because we would meet, like, once a month. So it was like, ‘Okay, all the–the January birthdays!’ and there would be a giant cake with candles on it. And you’d blow that out, and then we’d eat cake. And then play video games until our parents told us we had to go.

And that was Chinese New Year.

And all the other holidays seemed to be the same basic structure. Video games, some awkward ceremony…and cake.”

My informant moved to the US when he was five years old. He belongs to a Taiwanese-American Buddhist family, and he was very adamant about the fact that they were neither Taiwanese nor American, but a combination of the two. Because of this, he seemed unsure if the way that his family celebrates the Chinese New Year was “traditional” or bore any resemblance to the way other families celebrate the holiday.
The combination of the traditional (the red envelope ceremony – red for luck) and the modern (the kids all playing video games) seems to be the norm for many immigrant families. In my informant’s description of his Chinese New Year, it is evident that, as he explained, his family is both Taiwanese and American.
I found his aside about the way that his family shows love very interesting. They are tight-knit and obviously love each other, but as he describes it, it is much more demonstrative than stated outright. After all, what can be more loving than feeding your kids every day?

Dots to fend off negative thoughts

“If you’re doing something where you’re gonna be in front of people, or there’s gonna be a lot of people and someone could potentially wish bad upon you, you put a dot somewhere. Your mom or grandma will put a dot on you, and usually it’s hidden or on your forehead. And if someone does think something bad, that will keep the bad thoughts away. So like for weddings, the bride and the bridesmaids will have them, because there’s a lot of people, and they’re thinking about you, and maybe people are jealous.”


My informant is of Indian extraction. Although she was born and raised in California, she remembers her mother putting dots on her hairline for protection when she had to give presentations in front of the class. This is another iteration of the cross-cultural trope that seems to imply that celebration or putting oneself on display in a positive way could lead to disaster. The dots serve as protection against the negative thoughts of others, working much like charms or amulets work in other cultures.


“Maslenitsa is basically like a pre-fast to Lent, where you just…you give up meat that week, dairy…so it’s meant to work you off of it. Blini are sweet, so you’re not so depressed, uh…that’s…that’s my take on it. Then you just don’t eat meat or fish or dairy for forty days. Not just Wednesday, Friday–every day.”

Most Christian cultures have their own version of the famous Brazilian Carnival, the blowing off of steam before the fasting that comes with Lent. In Russian Orthodox culture, it is called Maslenitsa. During the week-long holiday, the faithful partake in a pre-fast, as noted by my informant. They give up meat and dairy in preparation for the intense fasting of Lent. In addition, the celebration of Maslenitsa originated in Slavic mythology and was a celebration of the end of winter. Because it still persists to this day, we can see how pagan rituals have been absorbed into Christian holidays. Obviously, this is common across cultures; however, it is especially obvious in this Russian holiday because of the pagan folk elements such as bonfires and the burning of effigies.

Blini, essentially the Russian version of crepes, are the most popular food during this time. They are a traditional Russian dish and are wildly popular; as my informant notes, the fact that blini are everywhere during the week leading up to the Lenten fast makes it easier on everyone.

Treating your guests to your birthday

“Birthday parties, you give your guests gifts, as a means of like, ‘Thank you for coming.’ And that translates as, like, if you’re having a birthday party, you pay for everyone to come. They don’t pay. They might give you gifts, but they don’t pay for anything. Also as like a, ‘Thank you for coming.’”

This is just another incarnation of the Russians’ famous hospitality. It would be unheard of to go into a Russian home without being offered at the very least a pot of tea and a snack. This culture is reflected into the way that birthdays are celebrated. Although we typically see birthday parties as a celebration of the person whose birthday it is, Russians see it more as a celebration of their loved ones, with the birthday as an excuse for getting together rather than a reason to celebrate one person specifically. A Russian would never dream of inviting someone to a party in his honor and then expecting guests to pay.

Waiting for the second shoe to drop

“There’s this guy, and his neighbor that lives above him. And every day, the neighbor that lived above him kicked his shoes. One shoe, two shoe. And he couldn’t sleep until both shoes were kicked off, but he anticipates them and normally it happens, so he just deals with his annoying neighbor. But one day, he only heard one shoe drop. And the anticipation was killing him, because the second shoe never dropped. So it’s just about anticipation, I guess. And we incorporate it into phrases. Like, ‘waiting for the second shoe to drop,’ I guess that comes from there.”


This phrase is common across cultures, but this was the first time I had heard it explained in terms of a story. My informant wasn’t entirely clear on the moral of the story; she knew it had something to do with anticipation, but she wasn’t sure what exactly. Perhaps it illustrates a situation in which someone is so wrapped up in waiting for others to act that they are unable to live their own lives. It could be a cautionary tale about making your own decisions and not waiting for outside circumstances to fall into place before you act. At any rate, it reflects a culture where apartment living is common; in a detached home, it wouldn’t matter if the second show never dropped, because no one would hear it except the person to whom it belonged. In order words, this story clearly comes from a culture where people live in close quarters, both physically and emotionally.