China Celebrates The Lunar New Year Despite A COVID Surge : Consider This from NPR In China, huge numbers of people are expected to travel and gather with family this weekend for the start of the Lunar New Year, just as the country experiences a major surge in COVID infections.

NPR's Emily Feng reports that the holiday may be bittersweet for some. We also hear reporting from NPR's Wynne Davis, who collected recipes to help ring in the Lunar New Year.

And in Ukraine, many Orthodox Christians marked the feast of the Epiphany on Thursday by plunging into the frigid waters of the Dnipro River. NPR's Elissa Nadworny talked to some of the brave swimmers, who said that this year the ritual felt like a needed respite from the ongoing war.

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Holiday Traditions in China and Ukraine Offer Comfort During Uncertain Times

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Holiday celebrations can be a throughline in life. Every year, they bring you a little reminder of your past. That's how it is for Joanne Molinaro in Agoura Hills, Calif.

JOANNE MOLINARO: I generally cannot think of Lunar New Year without remembering the number of times we'd go to my grandmother's home.

SUMMERS: As a kid, she'd complain.

MOLINARO: It was, like, a tiny, small apartment that was always extremely hot and, you know, crowded with fake Christmas trees - she had a bunch of those all over - and then, like, dried fruit and fish everywhere. It was kind of a hodgepodge of random things.

SUMMERS: But when she remembers it now, she thinks of the grandmother she misses. She cherishes her memories of those visits.

MOLINARO: She had one of those Korean-style tables which was right on the floor. And she'd have these bamboo mats rolled out for all of us. And we'd show up dressed to the nines in our hanboks, which is traditional Korean dress, costume. And after we'd eat, we'd do this thing where we'd pay our respects to our elder generation.

SUMMERS: Joanne Molinaro is a food writer now. She's behind the website and cookbook, "The Korean Vegan." So naturally, some of her memories are attached to what her family ate.

MOLINARO: Tteokguk, which is the very traditional Korean New Year's dish - it's a rice cake soup. And the broth itself is also very light-colored. It's supposed to symbolize the purity of a clean slate. Your new year is starting. There's no blemishes in it yet. And that is a very comforting feeling, knowing that, oh, I have this whole year to start over.

SUMMERS: That soup always brings back another Lunar New Year memory from years ago - one that's bittersweet.

MOLINARO: This was the year of my wedding - my first wedding. And my mother made this tteokguk, and she slides the bowl over to me. And with it was an envelope - a Hallmark card. And it's my mother's handwriting, and it's signed by both her and my father. And it turns out that my parents were very worried about my upcoming wedding, and they really didn't want me to go through with it. And they were begging me to reconsider.

SUMMERS: Molinaro was furious. Her wedding was in four months. She had her dress. Everything was on the books. She screamed at her parents and walked out the door. The soup was untouched.


SUMMERS: Many years later, that marriage has ended. She says there was a lot of grief and pain tied up in that relationship, and the memory has changed.

MOLINARO: I think about, sure, being hurt by that conversation, but I also think about how much my parents loved me. That took an immense amount of courage for them to say what they did at that time. But they would have done anything to protect me, no matter how old I was, how headstrong I was. That's what I remember when I think of tteokguk.

SUMMERS: CONSIDER THIS - through the ups and downs of a life, holiday traditions can be an anchor. Coming up, we hear how traditions in two other parts of the world - China and Ukraine - are providing people comfort during turbulent times.


SUMMERS: From NPR, I'm Juana Summers. It's Friday, January 20.


SUMMERS: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. This weekend is the Lunar New Year. It's a time for celebration in many Asian communities around the world. In China, it's a time to travel and see family. And for the first time since the start of the pandemic, people there can travel without mandatory COVID testing and lockdowns. But the holiday also falls in the midst of a huge surge in COVID infections and a struggling economy. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The Transport Ministry in China estimates people will make some 2.1 billion trips this month for the holidays, mostly departing from big cities and fanning out into the countryside.


FENG: But Yue Guirong is heading the opposite way. She left her village and has just arrived at this Beijing train station, weighed down by packages. What's inside? - we ask her.

YUE GUIRONG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Seafood and her specialty - sea duck eggs, she says, packages of hometown snacks for her son. She wanted to bring him a taste of home, and she cheerfully took the 24-hour slow train to Beijing from her home in southern China.

GUIRONG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "The rules were really relaxed, from departure to arrival," she says. "Travel went very smoothly."

At the same Beijing train station, 22-year-old Chen Junjie is getting ready to leave for the tropical south. He's had a rough three years. Most of his degree program in Beijing was spent locked down on campus.

CHEN JUNJIE: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He says, "I think, in the last four years, I really only had a year and a half of class. The rest was just online." Some weeks he couldn't even leave his dorm, so he's understandably excited to reunite with loved ones. They're planning a big party.

JUNJIE: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "Large gatherings were not allowed during the past three years," he says. "So this year, my entire extended family can finally get together. Even my grandparents are coming," he says.

Looming over all this frenzied holiday travel is the prospect of more COVID transmissions, however, because over the last month or so, China's seen nearly 1 billion people infected by the virus. That's according to a new Peking University study. China's public health authorities have warned smaller localities to stock up on medical supplies and to vaccinate the elderly, but there are no rules stopping someone from traveling now, even if they're sick.

WANG FENG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Taxi driver Wang Feng says he's trying to put off going home to rural northwestern China. He's not worried about COVID. He made it through the first peak, and everyone he knows has already gotten it.

WANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "If you do test positive, just stay at home," he says. "No one cares anymore about COVID."

What's really on his mind is money.

WANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "After three years of the pandemic, I'm nearly broke," he says.

Normally, he'd come home laden with gifts of alcohol and cigarettes for the men and new clothing from Beijing for the women. But China's economy has been tanking. It posted its lowest economic growth figures in four decades for last year because COVID controls - and now, high infections - have hurt the working class like Mr. Wang. So no gifts.

WANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Mr. Wang says he feels a lot of pressure. He's the sole breadwinner in the family, and he still has a mortgage to pay off. And his income declined, he says, as people spent less on taxis.

WANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: It's a Chinese tradition to wear new clothes on the first day of the Lunar New Year this weekend, but Mr. Wang says he's showing up in the clothes he's wearing right now. He hasn't had the money to buy new clothes for three years.

SUMMERS: NPR's Emily Feng.


SUMMERS: People in Ukraine face a different set of challenges, and they are marking a different holiday. Orthodox Christians there celebrated Epiphany on Thursday. And in Ukraine, it's a tradition on that day to jump into the icy cold waters of the Dnipro River - a way to start the year fresh, with a clear mind. NPR's Elissa Nadworny joined a group of plungers in the city of Dnipro.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Along the bank of the river, groups of friends huddle in their bathing suits and towels, deciding who will go first.


NADWORNY: About a half-dozen men in their 20s race into the water.


NADWORNY: It's a tradition loosely tied to the holiday that celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine has long said there is no religious reason to be in winter water, but it's tradition.

What is the thought that goes through your head right before you get in?

NIKOLAI PASTUSHENKO: (Non-English language spoken, laughter). Faster, faster, faster.

NADWORNY: Faster - just do it faster.

PASTUSHENKO: Faster. Faster. Don't scream.

NADWORNY: Nikolai Pastushenko has been plunging for many years. This year, he says the dip is a needed distraction, especially now and here. A Russian missile decimated an apartment building last Saturday, killing more than 40 civilians.

PASTUSHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: He says, "it doesn't really feel like a holiday this year. It doesn't feel festive."

Then, he wades in waist-deep, does the sign of the cross over his bare chest, and then he dunks...


NADWORNY: ...Once...


NADWORNY: ...Twice...


NADWORNY: ...Three times.

Yuliia Jzeggkina (ph) is bundled up on the shore, watching her husband, Vitalli, plunge.

YULIIA JZEGGKINA: (Non-English language spoken, laughter).


JZEGGKINA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "It's cold just watching," she says.

In years when the river is totally frozen, people cut holes shaped like the cross and jump through them. This year is warmer than in the past. The river isn't frozen, but there are floating chunks of ice, which prompts the question - what are all these people getting out of this?

STANISLAV BAZHENOV: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Stanislav Bazhenov explains he gets a sense of clarity when he plunges.

BAZHENOV: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "It's like freedom," he says, something he relishes since he's on break from fighting on the front line. "Yes," he says, "it does feel like small daggers all over your body."

BAZHENOV: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "It's hard to describe," he says. "You just have to do it yourself."


So I did.

It is very, very cold.


NADWORNY: Whoo (ph).

SUMMERS: That was NPR's very cold Elissa Nadworny reporting from Dnipro, Ukraine.


SUMMERS: At the top of this episode, you heard reporting from NPR's Wynne Davis. There's a link to her story on recipes for the Lunar New Year in our show notes.



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