The first lesson to learn about Chinese New Year is that it isn’t just Chinese New Year. The Lunar New Year is celebrated throughout Asia, not only in China, and each country brings its own customs and traditions to the party. To share some of those customs with Rivers students, the Asian American Pacific Islander Affinity Group this week welcomed Shirene Aman-Karim P’20 to campus. Aman-Karim, mother of Yasmin Myers ’20, explained how the new year is celebrated in her native Malaysia.
A table was set up to one side of the room, laden with holiday delicacies such as dumplings and custard tarts and decorated with colorful puppets, small drums, and cymbals. Before the feasting—an important part of any celebration—Aman-Karim offered some background to the group of 20 or so assembled students.
Aman-Karim, though ethnically Chinese, grew up in Malaysia, a culturally diverse land where many holidays and traditions are widely celebrated. “Malaysia has the largest number of public holidays of any country,” she noted, adding that her family observed five gift-giving occasions each year. “We celebrated not just our own holidays but all of each other’s holidays.”
At Rivers, she told the New Year story of the kitchen god, unable to snitch on certain naughty children because his mouth is stuffed with sticky holiday sweets. Aman-Karim then introduced the students to yee sang, also known as “prosperity toss.” Colorful ingredients, typically including shredded vegetables and raw fish (this version was fish-free), are arranged on a platter, each in its own pile. Diners, armed with sets of chopsticks, gather around and, at the designated moment, dig in to toss the salad, while shouting out loud their hopes and wishes for the new year. Along with traditional cries of joy, prosperity, and good health, more up-to-date wishes such as “getting into college” and “paying off my car” could be heard as the tossing commenced.
While students munched on the salad, Aman-Karim handed out red envelopes containing small gifts of money, another New Year custom. “Take it with two hands, to show respect,” said Mandarin teacher Chloe Yang, one of several faculty members who attended the presentation.
The formalities concluded, it was time to dig in to the feast. The dumplings by the dozens, it turned out, had been made by the Asian American affinity group at its last meeting and stored in the freezer ahead of the festivities. Students eagerly consumed them, along with the other holiday treats. Complimented on the neatly pleated dumplings, which looked as though they’d been made by experienced hands, Maddie Wambach ’21, one of the students who’d participated in the earlier cooking session, shrugged it off, noting that it was far from her first dumpling rodeo: “Some of us have had a lot of practice,” she said.
Wherever and whenever it’s celebrated, it seems, the turning of the calendar has certain universal qualities: consuming abundant quantities of food, taking stock of the year just ended, and sharing good wishes for the year ahead.