Asian Americans mark Lunar New Year with resilience: 'Joy is the most radical form of rebellion'

When Amanda Nguyễn was growing up in Southern California, Lunar New Year meant counting down to midnight and rushing toward the Buddhist temple. 

She remembers watching older family members bring flowers like chrysanthemums to the temple for good luck, the firecrackers, the red envelopes filled with money and, of course, the foods tied to Tet, Vietnamese Lunar New Year.

As an adult, she still plans to visit a temple on Lunar New Year. But instead of hosting a large, in-person gathering the night before, Nguyễn, 30, planned a virtual event to share family traditions and celebrate her heritage with other Vietnamese women. She noted that women been faced much of the violence and harassment aimed at the Asian American and Pacific Islander community amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We're going through such a difficult moment for our community, and the violence is really scarring,” Nguyễn, founder of sexual assault survivor advocacy organization Rise, told USA TODAY. “Joy is the most radical form of rebellion.”

It's a sentiment many Asian Americans expressed to USA TODAY ahead of the Tuesday holiday, which marks the beginning of the Year of the Tiger. Many described feeling hopeful and inspired to create change even as they make safety plans to celebrate amid the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing incidents of anti-Asian hate.

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Amanda Nguyễn is the founder of sexual assault survivor advocacy organization Rise.

Anti-Asian hate crimes increased 339% in 2021 in over a dozen of America’s largest cities, breaking records dating back to the 1990s in New York and Los Angeles, according to an analysis from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino

Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 10,300 hate incidents were reported in the United States to Stop AAPI Hate, which was founded in response to the increased targeting of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Lunar New Year is an opportunity for the Asian community to mobilize against the rise of anti-Asian sentiment, said Russell Jeung, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate.

"It is a celebration of our heritage and our families," said Jeung, a sociologist and professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University. "I want our community to really do that this year, to respect our elders by fighting against the racism that we're experiencing."

High profile attacks on Asian Americans, like the recent killing of Michelle Go on the New York City subway, and personal experiences with hate have spurred Asian Americans like Jaclyn, a New York-based physician, to rethink Lunar New Years plans to celebrate safely. Her last name is being withheld for privacy reasons.

Jaclyn's mother, who's in her 60s, was attacked last March when a stranger punched her in the chest while she was grocery shopping in Little Italy, near New York's Chinatown. 

Jaclyn had been working at the hospital for more than 12 hours, tending to COVID-19 patients, when her mom called, voice shaking.

"She was telling me how she felt so shocked, depersonalized and just, I think, unable to even process anything that happened," the 28-year-old said, adding that the man told her mom he'd targeted her. "I remember feeling very angry, wishing I was next to her."

Her mother was afraid to leave the house for days and is still cautious when going out. So this Lunar New Year, Jaclyn, her siblings, parents and grandparents decided to travel together by car to celebrate in Chinatown.

Despite the trauma, Jaclyn said they believe it's important to celebrate the holiday and their heritage, which is Chinese, Burmese and Thai.

"They're all very much looking forward to this being the start of a new year, a new chapter, maybe things being better afterward," she said.

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Jaclyn's family prayed with Buddhist monks before enjoying a Lunar New Year meal together,

Camille Hernandez, 33, also created a safety plan for celebrating the holiday in Los Angeles' Chinatown with her husband, three young kids, brother and mom, who is from the Philippines.

Hernandez has thought about how they would stay together, what they would do if there were an attack and how she would talk about it with her children.

"My kids are very multiethnic. We're Black, Asian and Mexican," she said. "There's no way to sugarcoat it. We have to say, 'Hey, this happened because of who we are ... It's a pity that people don't understand, but it doesn't make us inferior.'"

Even though Lunar New Year is not widely celebrated in the Philippines, Hernandez said she wants her children to take pride in their identity and collective Asian American community, like she does. 

Camille Hernandez wants her three children to be as proud of their heritage as she is.

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Guarding against COVID-19 has also altered many Americans' plans for the holiday. The pandemic has hospitalized and killed Asian Americans at higher rates than white Americans, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Typically, Erika Moritsugu's children march with lion dancers in the annual parade in Washington, D.C. This year, her family will celebrate at the White House's online event, which will feature chef demonstrations and cultural performances.

“It's the Year of the Water Tiger, which in the Chinese zodiac means that this year is going to be filled with adventure and enthusiasm but also moments that restore our strength and bravery and vitality,” Moritsugu said. "A lot of what excites me about this year is the hard work that's to come."

Erika Moritsugu, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) senior liaison, reads a statement from President Joe Biden to members of the Sikh community on May 1 at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis.

Last year, Moritsugu was named the first ever senior liaison to the president for Asian American and Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander communities. She said the administration has been working to get more aggregated data on access to vaccines, rates of infection and health outcomes for different Asian American communities, as well as to address the disproportionate economic impacts on those who often serve in frontline and public-facing occupations.

Last May, President Joe Biden issued an executive action condemning racism and intolerance against Asian Americans. 

Jeung, from Stop AAPI Hate, added that he feels hopeful about progress made this past year, which includes two states requiring Asian American history be taught in schools

"Asian Americans have really raised their voice. I've seen the largest social movement of Asian Americans in my lifetime," he said. "We have been really mobilizing around the issue to make change." 

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Vivian Teresa Nguyen, wearing an áo dài, says she's celebrating her Vietnamese heritage loudly and proudly this Lunar New Year.

The trauma endured by the community has spurred many people, like Vivian Teresa Nguyen, to take action and celebrate their heritage with pride, especially on Lunar New Year. 

"My parents did not emigrate from Vietnam, they didn't flee a war, just for us to come here and suppress who we are and suppress our culture," Nguyen, 31, said. "I think it's immensely important for us to continue to celebrate it loudly and extremely proudly ... so much louder than we have before just to prove that we're here and we have the right to be here."

Nguyen, a female empowerment coach in Las Vegas, said the attacks on her community the past two years have made her more angry than afraid. She's channeled that energy into educating others through social media.

"It's overall racism that we're battling here, not just Asian centric," she said.

Sonni Mun came out of retirement as a physician to care for patients during New York's first wave of COVID. Even as she headed to the hospital to help others, she feared for her own safety on the subway.

Sonni Mun, 52, of New York has spent the past two years volunteering to effect change for the AAPI community and others.

"I marched in probably like 50 Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 because it pains me to see what was happening in other communities that were struggling," Mun said. 

Early on in the pandemic, she also came out of retirement as a doctor to volunteer with COVID-19 patients, even though she was afraid she could be attacked riding the subway to the hospital. 

"I'm sort of running on scared, but if I don't try to actively participate in making things better, it's only going to get worse," she said, adding that she finds hope in her son. 

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Michelle Li, a TV news anchor in St. Louis, recently launched a foundation to amplify diverse AAPI voices after she received a racist voicemail calling her “very Asian” because she briefly mentioned eating dumplings to celebrate the new year on air.

Michelle Li in the early 2010s, when she was a news anchor for WECT, emceeing at the the Daniel Pearl World Music Days Peace Through Music concert at St. Mary Catholic Church in Wilmington.

“What happened to me at the beginning of the year has really opened my eyes to the beauty of all of us having different yet shared experiences being Asian American,” Li, 42, said. The voicemail "really was a gift because it became a sense of pride for a lot of people."

Li, a transracial adoptee, hasn't always celebrated Lunar New Year. As a child, she didn’t participate in deep bowing ceremonies or eating traditional tteokguk rice cake soup on Seollal, which is Korean New Year.

She has reconnected with her Korean family and now incorporates Korean traditions into her adult life. But she still sometimes struggles with not feeling “Asian enough." 

She’s hoping to celebrate Lunar New Year at an event in St. Louis with dancing and street food, and one thing is certain:

“We have to incorporate dumplings,” she said with a laugh.

Follow N'dea Yancey-Bragg and Eve Chen on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg and @chenwilliams

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