Today, February 1, 2022, marks the first day of the Lunar New Year. The timing this year coincides with the start of Black History Month here in the US. This year, I’ve been reflecting on my journey to unlearn my own internalized white supremacy. In many ways, this is healing me and changing my approach to celebrating my culture and identity.

Lunar New Year is celebrated in many Asian countries, including China, Vietnam, Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines. (A note on inclusive language – Lunar New Year refers to the collective celebrations during this time. Chinese New Year references the specific celebrations in China and within the Chinese diaspora.) 

For me, the ‘celebration’ used to be a complicated one. On the one hand, as a second generation Chinese-Australian immigrant, I felt ashamed. The questions and sudden attention of well-meaning white people, ‘curious’ about my traditions were othering. On the other hand, there was a special energy during this time for my family. We prepared and ate special dishes symbolic of a lucky and prosperous year ahead. Us kids were gifted new clothes and money in red envelopes. And we watched the (loud!) spectacle of the lion dances and firecrackers in our local Chinatown.

Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

Let me go back. My family is Chinese. Both my parents were born and raised in Hong Kong, and immigrated to Australia in the 1980s. We were a part of the 1.8% Chinese speaking population in Brisbane, according to the 1996 Census. 

As a child, all I wanted was to fit in. To belong. “Fitting in”meant speaking English, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, and playing with dolls with blonde hair. At least that’s what the cultural cues in my predominantly white community were telling me. My thinking then was, “I’ll fit in if I can just be more like Lauren and Elizabeth – they’re normal.” (Spoiler alert: they were white.)

I felt different and weird for missing Saturday morning playdates because my siblings and I had Chinese school. I have a visceral memory of being teased for bringing fried rice to school for lunch in the 2nd grade. I very literally didn’t ‘see’ myself when playing with phenotypically white dolls.

This feeling was amplified around Lunar New Year when suddenly the spotlight was on me. “Why are you wearing red?” “What Chinese zodiac sign am I?” “What’s my name in Chinese?.” I felt like I was being asked to speak for an entire culture – one I felt pretty removed from. One I was actively trying to distance myself from to be more like the Laurens and the Elizabeths.

Photo by Ragabz from Pixabay

As an adult, I’m now unpacking this internalized white supremacy within my own mind and body. I’m understanding that my parents maybe didn’t realize the need to point out the subtle cues of white supremacy. That the lessons I was learning all around me were flawed logic. That I would need to fortify my cultural identity to feel pride in it.

I’m also examining the spaces that I seek ‘belonging’ from. If belonging means hiding a part of myself and contorting to fit someone else’s ideals, then I don’t want to belong there anymore. Instead, I’m choosing spaces that treat white supremacy as a false narrative (with very real impacts). Spaces where I can bring my whole self and work toward our collective healing.

All of that to say, I’m on this winding, very much non-linear path of accepting myself for all that I am. And finding so many of us also on the journey, and drawing great strength from that. 

During this Lunar New Year I will be spending time with my mother. I plan to ask her about what she remembers of the celebrations in Hong Kong when she was growing up. I will be learning more about, and appreciating the unique traditions that make up my Chinese heritage. I will be preparing and sharing food with people I love. I will be wearing red proudly. To all who celebrate – I see you. Happy Year of the Tiger!