Rochelle Hoi-Yiu Kwan is a Facilitator who travels around the United States recording the stories of StoryCorps participants. In celebration of the Lunar New Year on February 5, 2019, she collected StoryCorps interviews around the Lunar New Year from the StoryCorps Archive for all to enjoy. Listen to her collection of stories, and learn how her family upbringing personally inspired her to take on this project.
Happy Lunar New Year, StoryCorps world!
My name is Rochelle Hoi-Yiu Kwan. I am a National Facilitator here at StoryCorps, which means that I have the absolute honor and privilege of jetting around the country to listen, record, and bear witness to the participants and stories of this country. Over 99% of these stories will never reach your ears through NPR’s Morning Edition, yet they weave together the history of this country and the everyday people that live in it.
On Tuesday, February 5th, many East Asian communities across the country (and world) rang in the Lunar New Year of the Pig. Contrary to the Gregorian calendar used by much of the Western world, which is determined by the position of the sun, the lunar calendar is based on the monthly cycles of the moon phases. For many East Asian countries, such as China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, and Mongolia, the start of a new year is based on the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar, and falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice, usually occurring in late January or early February.
Despite the varying customs and traditions of the Lunar New Year across cultures, at the heart of this holiday is family and food. Lunar New Year is the time for families to come together, celebrate having survived another year, and wish each other good luck and prosperity for the coming year, over a shared meal.
To celebrate the Lunar New Year, I dug back into our StoryCorps archive and stitched together stories from 20 former participants, hoping to share with others these customs and traditions, whether they celebrate the Lunar New Year or not. It didn’t take me long to realize that there was something more personal behind my desire to listen to and share these stories.
Almost a year ago, I packed up my life in San Francisco, my hometown where my family still lives, and made my way here to Brooklyn, New York. Having spent most of my life in California, I dreamed of moving to New York and I finally made it. What I didn’t realize (although I’m sure I did subconsciously) was the extent to which I would miss my family from across this vast country. Beyond feeling the emptiness of their missing physical presence, there were more subtle signs in my everyday life that constantly reminded me of their absence. It came in the constant desire to schedule dinner dates with friends, so I wouldn’t have to eat alone. It came in the craving for my mother’s dumplings, after years of not having thought once about them, despite having had them regularly throughout my childhood. It came in the growing number of red and gold decorations in my apartment, which I initially thought would simply brighten up my home but in actuality became an attempt to recreate the homes of my Chinese relatives and ancestors. It came in not knowing how and with whom to celebrate major holidays, celebrations that I had taken for granted as a child, because everything had been planned by the adults.
But now, not only was I an adult myself, but I was also by myself, without my family. There wasn’t a Chinese New Year dinner planned where I would get the chance to see and catch up with all of my family that I had been too busy to keep up with throughout the year. There weren’t mom’s dumplings on the stove, folded with love and ready to eat. There weren’t red and gold lanterns, posters, altars, flowers already prepared in my apartment to ensure good luck and prosperity in the coming year. Finally, and most painfully of all, there wasn’t a family for me to share a meal with, on the most important day of the year for so many Chinese people, on the day that was meant to set the course for the coming year.
As this sunk in, I came to realize that I couldn’t possibly be the only one. There must be other people who will be celebrating the new year without their families. There must be foods that they wish they had learned to make from their ancestors and are craving now. There must be customs and traditions that they imagine doing with their families, despite the distance between them. There must be memories they treasure from celebrating the new year with their families in the past.
So, what started out as a deep dig into the StoryCorps archive to ease the pain of being away from my family for the new year, by listening to others’ stories about familiar Lunar New Year traditions, became so much bigger than me. It sparked an eagerness to invite others to learn about the customs and traditions of the Lunar New Year, many of which I had taken for granted, yet many people had never even heard of. But, more personally, it ignited a feeling of responsibility to extend, especially to those away from their families, that exact feeling of family and home that I was missing and craving for the new year, through these stories.
Stories have a way of connecting us with people from around the world that we never even knew existed, let alone knew we shared common life experiences with. I have never met any of the 20 participants in this piece, but I found myself crying, laughing, learning, and deeply feeling with them through their stories and memories. I saw myself, alongside Alice and Bobby, making dumplings together, just like I used to with my own mother. I saw myself, alongside Jenny, Frank, and Jackie, gathering with all of my cousins to play games while our parents prepared the feast. I saw myself, alongside Tracy and Trina, wanting to invite all of my friends and loved ones to share in celebrating the new year with me and my family. I saw myself, alongside Lucy and Xiaoning, missing our families from afar, yet recreating all our favorite traditions and foods to celebrate the Lunar New Year in our new homes.
Just as these past participants shared such precious family memories and stories with me, I wanted to return the favor to the StoryCorps staff who brought me into their own family fold. I wanted them to hear, taste, and see exactly what made me into the person that walked into their Brooklyn office as a National Facilitator in March 2018. So, on Tuesday, February 5th, Lunar New Year, I hosted a Lunar New Year Listening Lunch for the StoryCorps staff. We listened to past participants remember Lunar New Year traditions. We saw family photos of both myself and participants celebrating the Lunar New Year. We ate my mom’s homemade dumplings, folded for the very first time by my own hands. We shared a meal together, as each other’s chosen family.
I hope listening to this Lunar New Year piece will give to you the very same feelings of home and family that I got from weaving it together. A very special thank you to the participants for sharing their stories and memories with us, and for making me feel like a part of their family, even without ever having met. And, of course, the biggest thank you to my own family for fueling me with love and food for all these years. Even when we’re apart, their presence and warmth is in everything I do, especially on this Lunar New Year.
Happy Lunar New Year to you all! May this coming year be filled with good fortune, prosperity, and flourishing health for you and your loved ones.