What does the Lunar New Year mean to me?

Is it the 20-course meals, featuring delicacies procured and prepared weeks in advance, the inordinate piles of food of every kind?

Is it the pocket money that came in crisp, brand new 100-yuan bills, tucked into exquisitely designed red envelopes, that lay under my pillow, waiting to be opened?

Is it the sound of firecrackers that permeated deep into the night, the pungent smell of sulfur in the crisp winter air, the quivering of my hand as I lit, with my father’s glowing cigarette, racks of fireworks that would soon dye the sky scarlet with their fiery blossoms?

Ask any Chinese student on campus what Lunar New Year is about. They will enthusiastically tell you stories about dumplings, firecrackers, even the laughable annual CCTV Spring Festival Gala. Vietnamese and Korean students will proudly describe to you their own traditions and practices, each precious in unique ways.

Yet even without spring rolls and lanterns, people will still celebrate the Lunar New Year. Traditions are important, but the spirit of the holiday extends far beyond superficial accessories and feasting. Despite the unprecedented abundance of material goods these days, many people of the older generation remark that guo nian (the Chinese phrase for celebrating the New Year) just doesn’t feel quite the same. Perhaps that’s because our preoccupation with appearances has taken away from the spiritual experience.

A few years ago on New Year’s Day, my family and I drove to my grandfather’s hometown, a quaint little place in western Zhejiang Province. We went up to a small mountain village where one of my great-aunts lived. After the customary meal, this great-aunt led my grandmother, my father and me on a trek into the mountains. We walked miles across the silent landscape, until on the side of a wooded hill we arrived at the grave of my great-grandfather.

My grandmother took out fruits, wine, incense, paper money and firecrackers from the basket she had around her arm. We laid the food and wine out for the spirit of my great-grandfather to consume. Then the incense was lit, and each of us paid our respects to the deceased, who had passed away long before I was born. My father burned the paper money, used to bribe officials in the underworld, and I lit the firecrackers.

After the cackling of the firecrackers ceased, my grandmother waved away the smoke and said to me: “Xiuyi, one day you will have to be in charge of this. You will have to remember where these graves lie, and you will have to come visit them every year. While I’m still alive I can come in your place, but one day you will have to take over, and you mustn’t ever forget.”

And I fear precisely because I can forget. As I look out the window into the snow-covered streets of New Haven, I think of my own identity, and I think of my folks back home. This year, just like the last, I will be spending Lunar New Year in a foreign country thousands of miles away from home. Here I can find easily the same food and the same decorations — I can even watch the CCTV Gala online in real time. Yet something seems missing. Something seems wrong.

Every year at the Lunar New Year, people go home. They crowd into trains, hitch rides — one way or another, they go home. There’s food waiting on the table for them, or they bring food to put on the table. There are decorations in the house, or they will come home and make them. The northerners will make dumplings together, and the southern folks will have their rice. They will visit the graves of their ancestors, and give pocket money to their children. They might be poor or rich, old or young, but the spirit of Lunar New Year, the spirit of homecoming, ancestry and inheritance, will live through them with the same persistence and vigor that has existed for thousands of years.

Xiuyi Zheng is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact him at xiuyi.zheng@yale.edu.