There’s No Vacation for Chinese New Year in America

Chinese New Year Family Photo
My Chinese father-in-law was surprised to hear we had no time off — but he’s never known a world without Chinese New Year, like I have.

“Will you have time off for Chinese New Year?” Even though my father-in-law had retired more than 10 years before, he asked this question to us this past Saturday night with all of the wonder of a young child during the holidays.

“No, the semester already started,” John said.

“They gave us vacation for Christmas, not for Chinese New Year,” I added. “Christmas is the big holiday in America.”

“Oh,” my father-in-law said, with a voice that dropped off in surprise.

But he’s not alone. Every time we’ve called our Chinese friends back in Hangzhou, the “vacation during Chinese New Year” idea invariably sneaks into the conversation. And every time we tell them, no, there is no such thing in the US, they answer with astonishment.

Why wouldn’t they? My father-in-law and my husband’s friends in China all grew up in a world where everyone celebrated Chinese New Year. For them, the holidays meant tables stacked with all of the stir-fried delicacies they dreamed of all year long, family, red envelopes for the kids, and a blitzkrieg of fireworks all over town.

When I finally experienced Chinese New Year for the first time in 2002, even I was taken aback by its fire and ferocity. Where was this festival and why had I missed it my entire life?

So now here we are in the Mountain West, in a world where Chinese New Year is nothing more than a flicker, where everyone is far more worried about the big American football championship at the end of the month. Still, I made a dinner of spring rolls, eight-treasures rice, red-braised pork, homestyle tofu, and bok choy with shiitake mushrooms. We toasted to an auspicious year of the dragon as “Descendants of the Dragon,” sung by Wang Lee Hom, echoed in the background.

Now, if only we had a little vacation for Chinese New Year.

(Happy Year of the Dragon!)

For those of you growing up with Chinese New Year, were you surprised when you discovered it wasn’t celebrated everywhere? For those of you who discovered Chinese New Year later on, were you surprised you never delighted in in this holiday before?

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14 thoughts on “There’s No Vacation for Chinese New Year in America

  • January 23, 2012 at 3:35 am

    Gong xi fa cai! (Hope I spelled it right…) In Russia New Years (January 1st,) was the big thing. We would celebrate it with staying up extra late, watching movies, toasting, spending time with friends and family, and, of course, presents 😀 When we moved to America, I never heard of Christmas and had no idea that for Americans New Years wasn’t as important as it was to my family. Although New Years is during a holiday season, but still it feels different. In Russia we’d have evergreen trees dressed up, then there would be snowmen and elaborate snowmen almost like sculptures (not kidding.) There also was snow and tv specials for New Years. (I live in Texas.)

  • January 23, 2012 at 5:00 am

    Growing up in the UK CNY has never really been a big thing tbh. I’ve had to work every single CNY for the past 20 years. No matter what industry I’ve worked in and I’ve worked in many from top to bottom. Even self employment is not an escape!

    And being Chinese, they think oh so you guys don’t celebrate Christmas either! So onto the Christmas eve/day boxing day rota you go! This even occured in my old white collar profession.

    Thus today is just an ordinary working day just like the last one and just like tomorrow will be as well. Corporates celebrate it via hawking junk food to the natives. And nothing happens, no fireworks, no decorations and my standard mellow khaki coloured clothing does not change to red unless my red t-shirts are the ones that are clean that day and everything else needs to go into the wash.

    Meh I’m even too old to get red packets of money, and my parents generally don’t do anything in particular either.

    HOWEVER. My parents are super super superstitious meaning when I visit for various reasons, the toilet lid stays closed unless in use and I don’t have to help out with any cleaning.

  • January 23, 2012 at 7:00 am

    As a Chinese Malaysian I was not surprised that CNY is not celebrated everywhere. However here in Malaysia we do have two days official leave for CNY which is celebrated in a big way by some 30% of the Malaysian population who are Chinese. All the other races do join in the celebration by visiting their Chinese friends who hold “open house” where food is served and ang paos are often given to visitors who come a calling, esp to the younger ones. It is all a very muhibbah (Malay for social and goodwill) thing. Neighbourhoods, esp in areas where the Chinese make up the majority, are often noisy with the loud sounds and din of cymbals and gongs of lion dances, firecrackers and the barking of neighbourhood dogs very much like in China I believe. And of course, mahjong tiles. BTW, Malaysian lion dance troupes are the best in the world! Just google to find out.

  • January 23, 2012 at 7:40 am

    Wow! The 1st time we get to meet your FIL.

  • January 23, 2012 at 8:30 am

    I am someone who didn’t celebrate it before but do now.
    I feel it is important to show my boyfriend how important his culture is to me, and that I would raise our kids(if we have any) to know it too.
    Actually, he was over last night and I cooked all manner of Chinese dishes…even nian gao!
    Even better was looking at my boyfriend and my son, and thinking how great it is that the three of us could celebrate this time together! Chinese New year is something that has brought my son and me a way to share a special togetherness with my boyfriend.
    I wonder if he’s flattered by the two of us(non-Chinese, non-Asian people) running around all day yesterday trying to make the food as authentic as possible?
    Well, he sure did enjoy eating it! 🙂

  • January 23, 2012 at 8:49 am

    I’m currently self employed and I do work on Chinese New Year here in America ,but have traditional dinner at home after work. Damn, what a life! w/ all my families around the dining table! I’m in my office now while typing my comment :)! Last night, we had a huge dinner. Some dishes are delicious because you don’t get to eat all the time. We passed out LAI SEE. We had a great time. I love it! I know people in China have a really long , long,long Chinese New Year. They are very happy there in China than here in America. I’m serious because all the people I know tell me this. Chinese New Year is about family to me and it’s not really about eating.

    Rebakah, That’s wonderful! You show me that you really put your heart into your family and relationship. Thank you


  • January 23, 2012 at 11:53 am

    A bill should be considered by congress to encourage Universities, private and public alike, to allowed Chinese ethnic background facultis and students shifting their Winterbreak holidays to Chinese New Year.

  • January 23, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    I now celebrate lunar new year with my husband. I love it. 🙂 My husband works today but we’ll be having a romantic dinner just the two of us tonight. Not only on Lunar new year, I do cook try to cook his childhood meals. Althogh, yesterday my husband was the one who cooked traditional Taiwanese cuisine. Happy stomach, to say the least. 🙂 My husband and I get involved with each other’s traditions and celebrations – sometimes we even create our own.

    I know I’ve said this before but I will say it again: 新年快樂!萬事如意!
    Happy lunar new year, everyone! 🙂

  • January 23, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    I have never yet experienced a true Chinese New Year celebration, but hope to one day.

    On Saturday, (few days ago), I went to a Chinese New Year party, hosted by this Chinese Association in my area. It was a lot of fun, and I wore my qi pao. But yet, it wasn’t a true taste of the cultural traditions of the Spring Festival.

    I’m the only one in my family celebrating CNY. (because I am an American.) My parents and sister don’t believe in any of the traditions, but I do. So I try my best to celebrate myself. It’s kind of lonely, but I know billions of Chinese around the world are celebrating with me. :]

  • January 23, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    I have been in the states for more than 20 years and truthfully, the China Town here in Cleveland, Ohio, has sporadic celebrations sponsored by various businesses. We went to the Chinatown last Saturday and there were vendors’ stands as well as some east/west mixed dances. When I was a kid, the celebration of Chinese New Year began with a feast 尾牙宴 (sort of like Thanksgiving meal here) where families and friends gather to eat and catch up with the latest; then at the midnight we heard the fire crackers went off everywhere (similar to the Fourth of July celebration here) – the firecrackers were used to scare off the monster “年“ so when we see each other again the next day, we celebrate for not being eaten by the monster. I think the Chinatown in the U.S. bears the fact that we are in a foreign country and just simply grateful to be able to meet up with someone who knows the meaning of such important day to the Chinese population. My being married to an American has drawn me focusing more on the celebration of Christmas and Thanksgiving. We have been to several feasts in the past few years, they were not as grand as what I saw as a child but brought back nice memories of my childhood.

  • January 23, 2012 at 10:16 pm

    I take the Chinese New Year off just for the sake of it … or to make statement 🙂

  • January 23, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    Chinese New Year! My memories are of my neighbors celebrating it, most of them from Vietnam and Laos. Everyone who arrived at our building would always greet me in a nice way. My neighbor would always apologize for the noise. I would secretly wish I could join in with the fun! I did celebrate last year by attending a public event. Had a blast. I love Lee Hom Wang! Got me interested in studying Mandarin. So I guess I will try to sing along with “Descendents of The Dragon” as my way of celebrating another wonderful year, gotta find the pinyin for it tho.
    Wishing you all a wonderful New Year.

  • January 25, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    namenotgiven – now that you mention the familiar song “龙的传人” (Descendants of the Dragon). The lyrics of the song “黑眼睛黑头发黄皮肤”(black eye, black hair and yellow skin) has carved into my heart ever since I heard it, that is why I put “BK” for my eye color on my driver’s licence, even though I actually have light blown eye and pale skin.

  • January 27, 2012 at 12:50 am

    This was my first CNY and thankfully my boyfriend had it off. He cooked some dishes he loved as a kid and I decorated the whole house. By the time we were done he stepped back and kept saying “it just like when I was a kid.” All his family is still in China so I am glad we could make his home feel like his childhood home during the holidays. I asked him if next year or the following year if we could spend CYN in China with his family, I’m pretty sure he’s already planning that trip!!

    Happy Year of the Dragon to everyone!!


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