Serious Eats / Chrissy Lu

Growing up, New York-based writer Alexa Yoon celebrated Lunar New Year with her family in northern California. Together, they ate the traditional Korean new year soup tteokguk, a light broth filled with thin rice cakes and seaweed, as well as citrus fruits—for luck and prosperity, respectively. She bowed before her parents to receive envelopes of money. It was a holiday separated from her school and friends, an intimate festivity spent at home with immediate family. Now, as an adult living on the opposite side of the country, it’s taken on a slightly different atmosphere.

“I invite everyone I’ve ever remotely interacted with in the five boroughs and New Jersey to drink in my apartment,” Yoon, speaking under a pseudonym for privacy, says. “I see the Lunar New Year party as an extension of a normal twenty-something street rat party.”

The quintessential Lunar New Year gathering at Yoon’s is feral, gleeful, and loud. Red is a must for the dress code. “I like the vibe to be pretty slutty,” she says. “I would describe my ideal event as a Lunar New Year celebration for sluts.” You won’t find food, just drinks inspired by modernized Asian food culture—think lychee martinis and flavored soju-based drinks.

As the East and Southeast Asian American diaspora continues to evolve, the celebration of Lunar New Year has shape-shifted with it, largely driven by millennial and Gen Z trends. In the Western eye, Lunar New Year may have traditionally been conceptualized as a niche celebration held in Chinatowns. Now, it’s been treated with an Instagrammable quality: an opportunity to dress up in red and gold finery, create snap-worthy spreads with friends, and put twists on traditional foods. Last year, for the year of the rabbit, videos on social media featured young people wearing bunny ears while drinking at parties. It sparked an online debate of what authenticity means. “These are my first ever qipaos,” creator Richelle Zhang captioned a video of Lunar New Year-inspired clothing for the year of the bunny. “The first one is based on Ao Dai not a Qipao btw,” someone responded, referring to the difference between traditional Vietnamese and Chinese clothing.

There’s always been a tension between the modern and what is conceptualized as the traditional, but for a holiday like Lunar New Year that’s celebrated by several countries and then homogenized under one racial umbrella, there’s room for both self-doubt and exploration about one’s identity. Vietnamese-American nail artist Pebble Nguyen says she feels pressure to learn about cultural norms for holidays like Lunar New Year. She’s the eldest of her cousins, and now that her parents and grandparents are older, she feels more pressure to keep cultural traditions alive.

“For me, it’s kind of hard to try to understand culture and tradition because I was born and raised here,” she says. “I feel a lot of pressure because I don’t know what I’m doing.”

While Nguyen celebrated Lunar New Year growing up, her family never explained the history or motivation behind certain activities. When she was younger, Nguyen congregated with not just her family, but the wider Vietnamese community. In a rented high school, she ate bánh tét—sticky rice with mashed banana or mung bean and pork belly wrapped in banana leaves—and dressed in her traditional silk áo dài to receive red packets, watch lion dances, and wish good fortune and longevity to her elders. She played gambling games with the children and spent time with her grandparents. It was something she just did, but now that she’s an adult on her own, she feels more obligated to learn about the nuances of why these traditions exist.

Asian American cultures have long been entrenched in monolithic stereotypes through the Western diaspora, meaning that many born and raised in countries like America have grown up consuming an endless list of stereotypes: Asian people are not sexy, unless they are murderous dragon ladies. Their languages are punchlines in comedy. The food is something to gawk at in its strangeness, or otherwise unhealthy for you. For young people, that can make understanding and coming to terms with your own identity incredibly difficult. “I just feel like if it doesn’t start with me, it will die with everybody,” she says.

Nguyen’s wider understanding of a pan-Asian Lunar New Year first came to her via Instagram through videos of other people’s dinner tableaus and anecdotes of family traditions distinct from her own. She’s also used Facebook groups to learn about the nuances of the holiday that she didn’t grow up with. Many have taken to social media to share the embarrassment or shame they felt over Lunar New Year growing up, and how they’ve come to appreciate their cultures since: “[I’m] realizing that we’re the new generation and we have to learn how to make our culture’s food to keep the culture alive,” one user captioned a TikTok of their freshly-rolled bánh tét.

Tasty producer Joelle Park, who is Korean and Chinese, said that social media has shone a light on the nuances within the wider Asian American diaspora, both in regards to Lunar New Year and outside of it. It’s allowed people to create the aspirational content they want to see for their own heritages—content they wished they could have seen growing up.

“People are still moving into the digital space and age as people who didn’t grow up with a lot of representation where [cultural holidays] were seen as cool or desirable,” she says. “That’s still a big element of reconciling parts of their identity—seeing the expansion of Asian representation in the media.”

Asian food trends tend to go viral often on social media, Park notes. And for Asian Americans, these recipes can provide a semblance of comforting flavor, offering simple and accessible ways to create food that evokes the feeling of pan-Asianness, something that tastes comforting but is also outside the scope of Western cooking. One trend that Nguyen said she’s excited to try this year is the waffle iron-fried bánh tét.

“I’ve noticed there are a lot of other more generic-feeling, Asian American fusion-y recipes to follow, like fried tteokbokki, rice cake chips in the air fryer,” Park says. “Asian Americans will pick them up, and then non-Asian people will pick it up, and it kind of turns into something with a life of its own.” It’s not inherently a bad thing, Park says. 

Virginia-based health equity analyst Ciara Lee, who also asked to use a pseudonym for privacy, has hosted a potluck with her Asian American friends for three years in a row. As a third generation Filipina-Korean American, she says she often struggles with whether she should be celebrating Lunar New Year at all. “It’s become a holiday I’ve really come to associate with friends and chosen family,” she says. “It took a while for me to really embrace it as something I can and should celebrate; I don’t have to have grown up celebrating it in a certain or traditional way.”

She now understands that to mean she can create new memories and celebrate the holiday in ways that feel thematically evergreen but made for a burgeoning new generation. Her friends are bringing a myriad of dishes from their own childhood memories of Lunar New Year to this year’s table: dumplings, tteokguk, perhaps Lunar New Year-themed cookies shaped like hongbao (the iconic red envelope) or the zodiac animal, which aren’t traditional, but are cute. “Taking part in the larger Asian American diaspora culture has helped me forge my own identity as well,” she says. “And who doesn’t love a potluck and cooking with friends?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *