Lunar New Year was something that I had never had a chance to experience. Although I am from Japan – an Asian country and geographically close to Sinophone countries – the Lunar New Year is not widely celebrated or recognised there.
Now I’m here in London, where every culture from every part of the world meets in a European country. SOAS is a magnificent place to meet new cultures, and, most importantly, new people that invite you to them.
This is a blog about my observation of my very first experience celebrating the Spring festival (Chinese or Lunar New Year) introduced by my dear friends and flatmates from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China.
New year celebrations in Japan are held from 1st to 3rd of January and are dedicated to spending time with family. However, due to the outbreak of the Omicron variant, I was unable to go back to Japan on winter break, which meant I didn’t get to celebrate the new year with my family. Although my Japanese friend and I managed to make some new year cuisine, I missed the atmosphere of having family members around me and being seated at one table. And then, there is this new concept (for me) of another new year celebration; Lunar New Year (LNY).
The preparation to celebrate LNY started with a lovely gift from my flatmate from Hong Kong. “We usually put the zodiac animal with 福 as a new year ornament,” she said. My very first celebration of the new year began with this cute lucky tiger.
Also, my student accommodation was adorned with Chinese new year decorations. When I spent the coming of the new year in this accommodation, I missed that familiar feeling of changing atmosphere – from Christmas to new year, from festivity to solemnity. Before Lunar New Year’s eve, I appreciated being surrounded by these decorations and going for groceries to Chinatown; a reminder that LNY is a mixture of both festivity and solemnity. Red-coloured lanterns and spring festival couplets on the accommodations’ door were extravagant and felt like they were inviting the coming of the new year energetically.
On the very day of the Lunar New Year’s eve, my Hong Kong, Taiwanese, and Chinese flatmates started cooking special meals. They started preparing the groceries at Chinatown and local markets the day before and spent 4~5 hours cooking.
At 9pm, the dinner started. There were 11 dishes on the table, and also there were 12 people seated; not only friends from East Asia, but also friends from Europe joined the table. The 11 meals were;
- Buddha jumps over the wall 佛跳牆
- Chinese leaf minced pork roll (Chinese leaf means 發財 prosperity)
- Pulled pork
- Braised Fish 紅燒魚 (年年有餘surplus year after year）
- Shaoxing wine shrimp 醉蝦 (shrimp means happy in Cantonese)
- Mesona Chicken soup 仙草雞湯
- Hakka Stir-fried rice noodle 客家炒米粉
- Braised pork knuckle 滷豬腳
- Deep fried squid
- Pineapple shrimp balls (meaning ‘welcome the luck好運旺旺來‘, and pineapple itself means lucky)
New year meals have specific meanings for the celebration, and many of them are related to luck, prosperity, abundance, and happiness. Not only Chinese and Cantonese cuisines, but there were also Hakka dishes. The dinner was festive and diverse, like this lovely company of 11 gathered at this table from different parts of the world.
Three hours until midnight – the very day of the new year — passed within a blink of time. I enjoyed the cuisine, and most importantly, this gathering itself. After dinner, we cleaned the table, and I got some leftovers for myself (a must for student life!), and it was already three past midnight. Our first “happy new year! 新年快樂！” was in the middle of doing the dishes. We were both tired and fulfilled, and I went to bed with the feeling of plentifulness in my stomach.
A takeaway from celebrating LNY with my friends here was that I managed to feel the way I needed to in order to celebrate the new year. After the pandemic began, my family and extended family have not been able gather together on New Year’s Day. What I got from this experience was knowledge about different new year customs and a warm feeling of happiness from having a meal and sitting with people that I love. Compared to the way I used to in Japan, this somehow similar yet different way of welcoming the beginning of something new was genuinely heartwarming and joyous in the middle of the pandemic.
To conclude, this experience has reminded me of the feeling of sitting at one table and welcoming the new year with someone. My student life in London ends next September, but I will continue to cherish the joy to have meals and observing events with my friends here, as they taught me how by celebrating Lunar New Year in a new way.
Haruna Kono is a SOAS Digital Ambassador, doing a postgraduate degree in MA Gender Studies. Their interests include sexual violence issues, reproductive health rights, queer in Asia, and massive love for anime, manga and idols.