Asians in America attempt to adhere to traditions

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Chinese New Year celebrations in America are much different from those Cape Girardeau resident Joanne Tiffany remembers from her childhood in Taiwan.

Growing up, children always got new clothes for the holiday, families gathered for big meals and her mother always made dumplings for the family to eat at midnight on New Year's Eve, she said.

Today marks the beginning of the new Chinese year, the year of the monkey. The Chinese follow a lunar calendar, so their new year begins later than that observed in America and other countries around the world.

During the New Year's holiday in China and Taiwan, businesses close and schoolchildren are on vacation since the celebrations can last up to two weeks. Many people return home for family gatherings.

More than 1.89 billion people are expected to be traveling this holiday season in China. But in Southeast Missouri, few Chinese-Americans are able to observe the holiday like their families do back home. And what parties they do plan must be modified to fit American life.

John Cai can't close his restaurant for two weeks during the holiday -- he couldn't afford to lose the business. So his restaurant remains open, but he does serve some more traditional foods on his China Palace buffet around the holiday. More Chinese decorations than usual hang on the walls.

Cai also is planning a special party for friends on Friday. His sister-in-law, Suzhen Qian, will sing traditional Chinese songs during the evening -- at least when she's not greeting customers in the restaurant.

Many Chinese-Americans find that weekends are better times for larger celebrations.

"It's much different for the overseas Chinese," said Joanne Tiffany. "You can't always do it on the traditional day."

But she is planning a celebration today for several students at St. Vincent de Paul School where her 9-year-old son, Kenny, is a student and she works as a cook.

Tiffany is cooking traditional Chinese food for students who passed an etiquette test and a quiz on China. Her menu includes won ton soup, Chinese barbecue ribs, stir-fried shrimp and lemon chicken as well as mixed vegetables and almond tofu. She's not sure many of the American students will like the food, but she's willing to see.

She limited the mixed vegetable dish to five Chinese vegetables instead of the traditional 10 usually served. She's only serving spinach, celery carrots, black mushrooms, soybean sprouts and lily flower, hoping the students at least try those. "I tried to pick things the kids would like and just go from there, but not scare them," she said.

Much of the Chinese new year celebration is based on food -- each dish, meat or fruit has some sort of meaning. The fried dumplings Tiffany prepared are often served because their shape is like a golden nugget, signifying prosperity.

Oranges are eaten because their pronunciation sounds like the word lucky. Pineapples are pronounced like the word for prosperity. Apple sounds like peace.

The wealth of food on a table during Chinese new year signifies their living standards, said Cai, or at least what they hope to achieve in the coming year. Families that don't have much money to spare often splurge for the holiday, he said. "A high living standard means good food."

The new year's eve meal is spent with friends and family reviewing the year past and making plans for the year ahead, he said. "You're eating good food and enjoying a life that's rich and peaceful."

Tiffany hopes the school children are receptive to a Chinese meal. "It's good for them to learn to adopt something from another culture and to learn what it's like," he said.

335-6611, extension 126

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