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Students connect with traditions for Lunar New Year celebrations in an unusual year

Students gather in pods, with family as student organizations create community, adapt events to virtual settings

As Feb. 12 marked the transition into the Year of Ox on the Chinese lunar calendar, students turned to unheralded ways of celebrating the Lunar New Year, not only in Providence but across the world and virtually.

For Bree Zhang ’22 this year's celebrations culminated in an unexpected silver lining — being able to celebrate with all of her family for the first time in six years.

Since Zhang and her older brother left for college, their family had never been able to celebrate Lunar New Year together due to their class schedules. But this year, after receiving the second dose of the vaccine back home in New Jersey, Zhang stayed an extra week to celebrate the new year with her family. 

Typically, the new year for the Zhang family means going to a family friend’s house to gather around traditional food and light fireworks. While the usual events were not possible due to COVID-19 restrictions, Zhang said that this year’s celebration were not any less meaningful.

Zhang’s family gathered for their traditional dumpling-making “assembly line.” Her mother prepared the dough, her father flattened it, Zhang filled and packed the dough with filling and her brother adjusted the shapes. After long hours of work, the family sat around the table to consume the food they collectively produced, which Zhang described as one of the highlights of the celebration.

Zhang enjoyed “just being with (her) family, eating so much food that you feel like you’re gonna roll up back into your bed because you're so heavy from all the delicious meals,” she said. “That’s something that I really enjoy and that I really, really missed when I was in college.”

Miles away from his family, which lives in Italy, Michael Chen ’22, president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, was still able to celebrate the holiday with his pod in Providence.

Like Zhang’s family, Chen and his podmates also made dumplings from scratch, and also cooked ribs. Chen appreciated being able to spend quality time with his podmates preparing food and eating it together. This was particularly special given the otherwise isolating effects of the pandemic, he added.

On Lunar New Year, Chen and his pod also took the time to watch “The Spring Festival Gala,” a staple lunar variety show broadcast annually by the Chinese government. 

The next day, Chen and his pod continued their celebrations around the TV in their living room to watch musical and dance performances that they had organized and put on for the The Ivy League Spring Festival Gala.

A collaborative effort by the CSSAs at all of the Ivy League schools, the Gala was a collection of musical and dance performances pre-recorded by each institution, including an original song composed by Brown CSSA members. The presentations ranged from traditional performances to more modern singing and dancing, and also included guest appearances from various Chinese celebrities.


The Gala was broadcast both on YouTube and on iQiyi, a Chinese online video platform, gaining around 2,500 and 19,000 viewers respectively on each platform. The Gala was “very successful,” Chen said, adding that he was heartened that it was able to reach not only students from the Ivies, but also broader audiences in China.

Along with performances, CSSA also created a series of WeChat stickers including a “hongbao,” or red envelope, as well as Ox-inspired characters to celebrate the event.

Jemma Xu ’23, who is currently studying remotely from China and who helped plan the Gala, said that the event fostered a sense of community among Chinese students enrolled at Brown, whether they were in the United States or in China.

Chen echoed Xu’s sentiment, adding that the event created community and connection among Chinese students across all eight Ivies.

“Chinese people like having a crowd, and that’s something you cannot do under these circumstances,” Chen said. “So having a crowd who you have been engaging virtually in the planning is huge.”

This new year also marked a different type of celebration for the Brown Taiwan Society, who, for the first time in recent years, decided to host an event dedicated solely to the Lunar New Year.

According to Jamie Cheng ’22, co-president of BTS, many of the club’s typical holiday events center around food — events that are no longer feasible due to the pandemic. This year, in place of a food-oriented celebration, the group decided to put on a Zoom event so that other students could learn more about the Lunar New Year and its traditions.

To mitigate the Zoom fatigue many students are already feeling from virtual coursework, BTS sought to make the event fun and interactive, Cheng said. The event had eight breakout rooms where students could learn about different Lunar New Year traditions, and attracted around 40 to 50 students, according to Cheng.


Cheng said that one of her favorite parts of the event was a wish writing activity, in which executive board members wrote participants' wishes in Chinese characters on virtual lanterns, emulating the lantern festival.

For Zhang, new year celebrations this year also meant being able to reconnect with tradition. Before college, Zhang said that she did not feel as comfortable participating in more typical traditions, and felt embarrassed to wear traditional clothing. But over the past few years at Brown, Zhang said that she has become increasingly more in touch with her culture, making this new year feel even more special as the first time she fully celebrated the holiday after coming to college.

“Wearing Chinese attire in the new year and feeling beautiful in it instead of feeling a little embarrassed to be wearing it because (I thought) it would look weird” was a milestone for her this year, Zhang said.

Next year, Zhang hopes to be able to go to China to celebrate Lunar New Year with her extended family.



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