Why it's taken me 34 years to decorate for Chinese New Year

The pandemic has changed my perspective on how I embrace my Chinese-American identity

This year's Chinese New Year welcomes the Year of the Tiger. Unsplash
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There's no lack of choice when it comes to decorating for Chinese New Year in the UAE. Mini red lanterns, cute stuffed animals and red envelopes line the shelves at WeMart Abu Dhabi. That's where I bought my decorations as I prepared to celebrate the annual holiday properly for the first time in my life this year.

Although my family has always had a small celebration, including handing out those famous red envelopes, it hasn’t been something I’ve kept up with on my own, and much less so since I moved to Abu Dhabi almost eight years ago.

Chinese New Year decorations at WeMart Abu Dhabi. Evelyn Lau / The National

Growing up, I’ve always had a bit of a strange relationship with Chinese New Year.

As one of only two Chinese families in my small home town in Massachusetts, US, whenever the holiday would come around, I’d be tasked with teaching my fellow classmates how to “properly” say “gong xi fa cai” – a traditional greeting used for the occasion – or asked to share my personal experiences of it.

When I was in my awkward tween and teenage years, I really didn’t enjoy having the spotlight put on me, especially for something that seemingly pointed out how different I was from everyone else. It wasn’t that I was embarrassed of my heritage, more that I disliked the unwanted attention at a time when I really wasn’t very sure of myself.

It highlighted my confused identity, too, as I felt as though I was too American to be considered Chinese, and vice versa.

It took me a long time to shake that feeling. I've wished people a “Happy Chinese New Year”, but never fully embraced the occasion beyond that.

This year, I decided to change my outlook.

When the pandemic began a couple of years ago, it undoubtedly changed the world in more ways than one. For the Asian-American community, it’s meant an increase in violent attacks and racist rhetoric with an alarming rise in crimes being reported in the US, with offenders seemingly spreading one message: “You don’t belong here.”

As heartbreaking as this has been, these events have also allowed for more solidarity among the Asian communities, with people speaking out against that pervasive undercurrent of racism we always felt, but couldn't quite articulate, when I was younger.

These days, I find myself following more Asian-run businesses and news accounts solely dedicated to covering Asian voices on social media. I’ve seen people share their experiences, ones that I can relate to and ones that have helped me better understand that I’m not alone in how I feel or in liking the things I like.

Now in my thirties, I have a renewed sense of pride in who I am, even if it took me a while to get here. Instead of questioning where I belong, these days I find myself asking what more I can do to share my perspective and help others know they belong, too.

Amid the Chinese New Year decorations in WeMart Abu Dhabi, there are decorative scrolls, called couplets, filled with words of luck to usher in the Year of the Tiger and paper cuttings to fit on windows and walls to bring peace and happiness. There's a beautifully put-together red paper plant filled with mini lanterns and red fans.

As I was rifling through, a stranger came up to me and asked what the couplets are and how to use them. Proudly, I explained that, although I’m a bit new to it all myself, they are traditionally hung around a doorframe, to bring luck and peace for the coming year.

I ended up buying a few cutouts to put around the house – two that signify that luck is coming and one that welcomes the spring season (according to my mum).

As my partner and I hung them up around the house, I didn't feel so out of place. I couldn't help but wonder why it's taken me so long to join in.

Scroll through the gallery below to see how Chinese New Year is celebrated in Dubai:

Updated: February 01, 2022, 11:45 AM