My Menu For Lunar New Year: Guilt, Confusion, With A Side Of Angst : Code Switch When you're hosting this symbol-rich holiday for the first time, how do you assume ownership of rituals you don't cherish?
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My Menu For Lunar New Year: Guilt, Confusion, With A Side Of Angst

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My Menu For Lunar New Year: Guilt, Confusion, With A Side Of Angst

My Menu For Lunar New Year: Guilt, Confusion, With A Side Of Angst

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Tomorrow is the Lunar New Year. And for the first time, Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch team is struggling with a dilemma. How can she honor the customs her family brought all the way from China when she doesn't fully embrace them?

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: First, let me clear something up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHOW: I'm guessing these drum beats and cymbal crashes are sounds most people imagine when they think of Lunar New Year, sounds from a lion dance, a parade in some Chinatown. That's not really the Lunar New Year I grew up with. The holiday was much more intimate, kind of serious and religious even though my family wasn't really.

I never bought into these customs because I didn't understand them. My family would pray and burn incense and paper money in honor of our dead relatives. We'd eat symbolic foods like fish for prosperity, noodles for longevity or chicken for more prosperity. For my parents, this was the only time they made my sisters and me do these Chinese rituals, and still, I never cared about them.

Testing, testing.

I called my dad to ask how he feels about it.

Can you hear me now, Daddy?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, yeah, I can hear you.

CHOW: For the first time, I'm hosting him for a Lunar New Year celebration. It feels like a big deal. I'm worried, but my dad says it's OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's like that you're growing up, becoming an adult, you know?

CHOW: Thanks, Dad. I'd like to think of myself already as an adult, but I can get where he's coming from. When you're growing up in America like I did, it's hard to hold on to things from your family's culture. I called a bunch of experts who study families like mine, and they all said this is totally normal. U.S. culture makes Chinese customs seem old and weird, and it's hard for parents to translate their meaning to their Americanized children.

Still, I'm not sure if any of that makes me feel better. I still feel like I'm diluting a culture, my dad's culture - things like how eating fish brings prosperity or noodles brings longevity or chicken, more prosperity. I asked my dad if even he completely buys all that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, you know, sort of.

CHOW: My dad fessed up. It's not easy for him to hold on to these traditions either. Most places in the U.S. do not recognize Lunar New Year as an official holiday or give a day off for it, so making time and getting everything done is stressful. But my dad still sticks to the tradition, and he coached me through my first Lunar New Year meal.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You don't have to make something difficult, you know? Just simple one will be fine, you know?

CHOW: Fish for his request and chicken for more prosperity.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...And then you can just cut them and get the scallion and then the...

CHOW: For my dad, the important part of Lunar New Year is about honoring the dead, including my mom, who died 12 years ago. For me, it's about honoring both of them. Kat Chow, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FLAMING LIPS SONG, "ARE YOU A HYPNOTIST??")

SIEGEL: Kat Chow's essay, "My Menu For Lunar New Year: Guilt, Confusion, With A Side Of Angst," is at npr.org/codeswitch.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FLAMING LIPS SONG, "ARE YOU A HYPNOTIST??")

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