How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Chinese New Year: Children of immigrants' curious relationship with age-old superstitions

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When Shirley Fung goes into the office Thursday, she might show up with her hair in a ponytail.
“You’re not supposed to wash your hair on New Year’s Day because that’s, like, washing away all the good luck," said Fung, a 22-year-old intern with an event planning agency in Gardena. "I wash my hair the day before."

Chalk it up to tradition - even if she is a second-generation kid raised in Brooklyn.

Lunar New Year begins Thursday on the Chinese calendar. With it comes a list of traditional superstitions intended to bring luck and make for a good start to the year. They range from not cleaning house to not arguing;  best practices, one might say, for starting any new year out right.

Children and grandchildren of immigrants who grew up with these age-old dos and don'ts have a curious relationship with them. They don't necessarily believe them, or for that matter remember all of them. But many still follow the traditions they do remember, as best they can.

In their parents' San Gabriel home, Dora Quach and her sister do much of the cooking and cleaning for their family's traditional dinner, which they host on the eve of the new year. There's always a crowd - then they have to clean up the mess before midnight.

"Up until eleven or eleven thirty, we are still cleaning the house," said Quach, 28, whose family is Chinese-Vietnamese. "And then I try to squeeze in that one last shower and try to get my hair clean before the new years starts."

Even then, it can be hard to avoid housework. Especially given that she has a dog.

"For the first time in all the years I've had this dog, on the first day of the new year last year, he manages to step in his own poop and then walk through the house," Quach said.

She listened to her mother's admonitions and didn't break out the mop – but she did spot-clean, with bleach.

Like other American-raised peers, Quach sticks to the practices for a complicated combination of reasons. She says they are important to her family, for one thing.

"There's a deep sense of tradition," she said. "I know nothing terrible is going to happen if I sweep the floor the next day. But at the same time, if the idea is you're just keeping in a little extra luck for the coming year, that's not the worst that could happen."

Some traditions are just harder to keep in the United States, said Calvin Ho, a 25-year-old graduate student. He was born in Los Angeles but spent time in Asia as an undergrad.

"When I lived in Taiwan, all the corner stores sold red underwear, like bright red, Valentine's Day-colored underwear, because it was considered lucky to wear red underwear," Ho said.

But in the U.S., "it's actually kind of hard to find that color underwear. At least for men. Maybe some of these things are going away because it's not practical to do so."

But there are practical reasons to engage in other traditions: Like getting one's hair cut before the roughly two-week-long observance of the holiday, which Ho just did.

"There was a huge line because I go to a Chinese hairdresser, and everyone was trying to get their hair cut before the new year," he said. "I needed a haircut anyway, and I knew that if I was going to get it cut at the usual ethnic hairdresser, then I wouldn't have chance during the new year. They’d probably be closed.”

Then there are sentimental reasons.

Shirley Fung is 3,000 miles from home in New York, with no one here to remind her about New Year superstitions.  So she's decided to mind the ones she's familiar with on her own. 

"Nobody is here to tell me what to do," Fung said. "So that is the only way I can get connected with my family, because I'm not seeing them right now."

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