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Tuesday, July 05, 2022

The Year of the Tiger: Asian student groups celebrate Lunar New Year throughout February

Asian students overcome adversity to put on Lunar New Year shows

Lion dancers perform at the UF Vietnamese Student Organization's Lunar New Year show at the Reitz Union Grand Ballroom on Saturday, Feb. 12. The performers are members of JiaTing, Surge and Pi Delta Psi.
Lion dancers perform at the UF Vietnamese Student Organization's Lunar New Year show at the Reitz Union Grand Ballroom on Saturday, Feb. 12. The performers are members of JiaTing, Surge and Pi Delta Psi.

Every spring, families around the globe adorn their homes with red paper cuttings and lanterns to bring good fortune. Throughout February, the Reitz Grand Ballroom was decorated in the same fashion to celebrate Lunar New Year

The holiday marks the beginning of the lunar calendar, which is based on moon cycles. Thus, Lunar New Year occurs on a different date each year, falling on Feb. 1 in 2022. 

Each year is also characterized by one of the twelve Chinese zodiac animals, with this year represented by the tiger, symbolizing bravery and courage. 

On UF’s campus, the Vietnamese Student Organization, the Chinese American Student Association and the Korean Undergraduate Student Association hold yearly celebrations showcasing cultural traditions and student talent. 

These Lunar New Year shows commemorate Asian and Asian American students’ heritage — even in a place where Lunar New Year festivities are not prominent.  

“In Gainesville and at UF, you don’t see much about Asian holidays, so there isn’t much of an environment for Asian students to celebrate it,” Keena Huynh, VSO cultural director, said.

The lack of acknowledgement for Asian holidays like Lunar New Year continues to be an issue for students like Kylie Lopez, the CASA director of events. 

Lopez, who is of Filipina and Irish descent, started celebrating Lunar New Year when she joined the UF CASA community. However, she and many students experienced difficulty getting excused from academic obligations to prepare for their organization’s festivities. 

“I heard from a lot of kids, ‘I couldn’t reschedule my exam’ or ‘I couldn’t miss my class,’ so there was a bit of a barrier,” Lopez said. “I think a lot of cultures and religions that aren’t really ‘mainstream’ don’t get the same respect.”

Funding is another obstacle for many Asian student associations, Vy Nguyen, a 20-year-old marketing junior and the KUSA co-publicity chair, said. 

“I didn’t expect many Lunar New Year celebrations when I came to UF, so having any at all, especially at the scale of the ones we have already, has exceeded my expectations,” Nguyen said. “But at the same time, a lot of organizations struggle with funding and that could be improved upon.”

Despite these obstacles, the on-campus shows commenced with the determination of students, boards and committees. 

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VSO Tết 

A bright red moon encircled by glowing fairy lights hung on black curtains. Inside the moon, the image of a golden tiger emerged from swirling fog, its gaze pointed at letters spelling out “VSO Tết 2022.” 

An excited murmur rippled through the crowd as the clock ticked closer to a night full of festivities to celebrate the Year of the Tiger. 

The Vietnamese Student Organization hosted the annual Lunar New Year cultural show, Tết, on Feb. 12 in the Reitz Grand Ballroom. Tết, short for Tết Nguyên Đán, is the Vietnamese name for the celebration of Lunar New Year. There were an estimated 700 attendees, filling every seat in the ballroom.

This year’s theme was “Ascent of a Warrior,” representing how the Vietnamese American community has overcome adversity. 

At Tết, various groups performed traditional and modern dances, including a lion dance and a fan dance. A fashion show featured cultural garments like the áo dài, a long, split tunic. 

VSO collected donations for their chosen philanthropy, Asian Prisoner Support Committee, a group that assists Asian and Pacific Islander prisoners, and the UF Asian Alumni Cô Lien Scholarship. The scholarship honors the legacy of UF alumna Bạch Liên Tống Dương, who taught UF’s first Vietnamese language course and helped establish the Amitabha Buddhist Association.

Celebrating Tết at UF was especially meaningful for Jacqueline Duong, the VSO external vice president. Originally from Miami, Duong found it difficult to be away from her family during the holiday. 

“Lunar New Year is a time for us to get together with loved ones,” Duong said. “The show provides a home away from home for those of us who can’t celebrate with family.” 

Typically, Vietnamese families take part in the tradition of chúc —giving wishes of good health and fortune to elders and loved ones. Afterwards, one usually receives a lì xì, which is a red envelope filled with money.

“My Mom fills up envelopes with money and she puts it in a tree,” Duong said. “On that night, she has us come out and randomly choose an envelope.”

As one of the Tết choreographers, Joseph Shrader, an 18-year-old pre-nursing freshman, performed the modern dance piece, “Flower,” which was interrupted by an audio malfunction — leading to a special moment he wouldn’t forget. 

“Believe it or not, when the music cut during my piece, it was, in a sense, beautiful,” Shrader said. “It showed how much effort and energy not only dancers but also the crowd were putting into this piece, and the dedicated community we have around VSO and VSO dance.” 

CASA CNY

CASA’s Chinese New Year (CNY) show, “The Tiger and the Child,” took place Feb. 20 in the Reitz Grand Ballroom. On the same stage as VSO’s Tết, shimmering red curtains behind bold yellow letters spelling “CASA CNY 2022” served as the backdrop for the evening. 

The UF Chinese Traditional Instrumental Ensemble, the folk music group of the Chinese Student Association, played a medley of traditional and modern Chinese songs. CASA Dance performed a variety of modern and traditional choreography, with one key performance being the dragon dance. 

Ten members of JiaTing Dance Troupe brought a scaly, black and gold dragon puppet to life, its eyes wide and maw open as its body rippled across the stage. 

In Chinese culture, Lunar New Year is celebrated for 16 days. The Lantern Festival concludes the festivities and occurs during the first full moon of the lunisolar calendar. 

During the festival, people solve riddles on colorful lanterns and eat tāngyuán, which are sweet rice balls. Similar to Vietnamese culture, traditions include hanging up red decorations, giving and receiving red envelopes called hóngbāo and honoring ancestors. 

Wen Jie Lin, the CASA internal vice president, recalled her fond memories of celebrating Lunar New Year with family. 

"Growing up in the U.S., Lunar New Year isn't as big of a celebration as it would be in China, but my family would gather and have a big meal together,” Lin said. “My favorite part is the food and the happy atmosphere of everyone excited for a new year."

Having performed for VSO’s Tết and assisted with CASA’s CNY, Lin noted how her involvement in Asian American Student Union (AASU) activities has exposed her to the different ways in which Lunar New Year is celebrated. 

"Being involved in the AASU community, around Lunar New Year time, I look forward to all the cultural shows,” Lin said. “I love seeing everyone’s pride and how different cultures celebrate Lunar New Year.” 

KUSA Seollal

KUSA’s Seollal show, “Count Your Lucky Stars,” will take place on Feb. 26 at 6:30 p.m. in the Reitz Grand Ballroom.

A spring show is nothing new to KUSA, but this year marks the first time the organization connected it to Lunar New Year. In an effort to create a greater cultural emphasis on Korean culture, the KUSA board rebranded their show as Seollal. 

Seollal is the Korean New Year according to the lunisolar calendar. It is typically celebrated for three days in North and South Korea and by the Korean diaspora.  

Attendees can expect to see Korean traditional performances and traditional Korean instruments, like the janggu, a large, hourglass-shaped drum. There will also be modern dance performances, including one by The Ace Company, a student-run dance crew. 

The theme “Count Your Lucky Stars” is based on a tradition called bok jumoni, which are bags of money given by elders on Lunar New Year. 

Seollal also provides a space to celebrate Lunar New Year for Korean students far from family. When Olivia McMaster, the KUSA co-cultural director, lived in South Korea, she would visit her grandmother’s house on Lunar New Year to prepare food and spend time with her cousins. 

McMaster and her family also held jesa, a memorial service to honor one’s ancestors. In McMaster’s case, it was for her grandfather. 

“We’d set up food on the table and all the men in the family bowed to him,” McMaster said. “After that we would eat and chat.”

This year, McMaster and the rest of KUSA hope to bring the same feelings shared with their family into the Reitz Grand Ballroom for Seollal. 

“Seollal is a rare opportunity for people to learn about the more traditional aspects of Korea,” McMaster said. “I’m excited to see everyone’s reactions because we’ve been planning this since winter break.” 

Contact Eileen at ecalub@alligator.org. Follow her at @EileenCalub.

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