Sometimes, at large events like galas or press conferences, there will be a speaker who knows exactly what they want to say but have no idea what to do with their hands.
I'm kind of like that with Lunar New Year.
Like a public speaker desperately trying to not put their hands in their pockets but simultaneously aware of just how obnoxious their motioning is, being a person of Japanese descent on Lunar New Year can be a little awkward as we're one of the only Asian countries that doesn't celebrate it.
Though on one hand I'm totally into it and love that there is a holiday that "we" can all share, I'm also totally aware that as of 1873 it wasn't a thing for my family. That means no lucky candies, no feeding cabbages to lions, no huge family banquets.
And some of the more plugged in readers are probably like "But DownLikeJtown, Japanese people have a really elaborate tradition of New Years that is almost equally as awesome and involves lots of great food as well, just on January 1st."
To which I reply yes, indeed there is there is an awesome New Years tradition that many Japanese American families celebrate. But my family is not one of them. My New Years meal this year was a styrofoam bowl of rice, a piece of shrimp tempura, and a croquette at a local supermarket. Their hot food section was all on sale.
Which is why I attach so much to Lunar New Year but also know that I'm celebrating a holiday that is totally not mine. Part of me makes the case that it was classically a Japanese holiday and only with the Meiji Restoration did it become a non-Japanese thing, but deep inside I know that doesn't hold too much weight.
Nevertheless, this weekend I ended up at the really fun first annual San Gabriel Lunar New Year Festival. Put on by the KCM (Kollaboration Creative Media) Agency and the city of San Gabriel, the festival was a relatively standard mix of booths, food trucks, and stage performances.
These street festivals are usually, to be real, pretty cookie cutter but this one was interesting in that the performances (curated by the good folks at Kollaboration) all seemed pretty on-topic for the event. Normally there's an injection of random local performers to make the event "multi-cultural" when, let's be honest, we're all there to get our Lunar New Year on. This time there was a balanced mix of traditional and contemporary music and dance, and apart from an 1890's flashback in the form of a White dude with a weird "ancient Chinese" magic act everything was on point.
The event was held outside the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse and inside the playhouse was a reel of short films curated by Visual Communications and Kollaboration, an element that definitely set the festival apart. Though the theater was largely empty (I didn't stay for a free screening of Linsanity that occurred in the evening), it was cool to see the intersection of film, festival, and performances. I feel like there are opportunities, especially with the proliferation of independent media production, for more integrated approaches to how we organize our communities and celebrate our heritages. I think about the 626 Night Market's short film contest and their overall approach to mixing media.
Through KCM's partnerships, there is a lot of opportunity for next year's festival and the festivals to come after.
I often think about the fate of these cultural festivals. As more and more "cultural" media becomes accessible and as opportunities to interact with Asian America are more and more normalized (boba shop culture is already a thing and has kind of hit its peak, let's be real), what will drive the next generation to spend their Sunday at a festival?
What drives my generation of organizers to continue these traditions in the face of historic assimilation?
What is it about a Lunar New Year festival that brings us together, decades after our families have already settled here? Are we doing it for our grandparents? Ourselves? The future?
There's something to be said for gathering together to celebrate a sort-of-but-not-so-common identity and tradition. As much as we are told by our elders that the more time goes on the further we grow from our roots, maybe we're trying to find our people and trying to define ourselves in our historical contexts on our own terms. Perhaps using tools we've been passed from our parents and grandparents is the best way we know how navigate these challenges.
Regardless, this is the "first annual" San Gabriel Lunar New Year Festival and for something to be annual it has to happen every year. We're setting new traditions in motion, asking new questions, and looking for new ways to utilize those tools we've been passed.
It's pretty exciting to witness.