East Grand Rapids — One after another, Breton Downs fifth-graders peppered their teacher, Nia Chen, with questions about the Lunar New Year.
“Can you speak Chinese?”
“What city did Lunar New Year start in?”
“Is the Nian Monster real?”
“What is your favorite food?”
She eagerly answered them all — until, noticing the time, she grinned and made a heart shape with her hands to express her appreciation.
“I love that you are so excited about this,” she told the students gathered in the Learning Commons. “That makes me so happy. But we have so much more to talk about.”
Chen, a first-generation Chinese American, spent an afternoon teaching the fifth-graders all about the Lunar New Year, a 15-day celebration of the new year based on the traditional Chinese moon and sun calendar. In the United States, the holiday is typically celebrated on the date of the new moon that falls between January 21 and February 20, which was on Sunday this year.
“It’s a holiday with lots of food, family time, parades, festivals and folktales,” Chen explained. “It’s something that many countries celebrate, not just China; you may hear some people call it Chinese New Year, but that is why we refer to it as Lunar New Year. In China, besides being a celebration of the new year, it’s about honoring our family members and taking time to be together — that’s what’s most important.”
To honor her own family, Chen wore a qipao, or a traditional Chinese dress, which she inherited from her grandmother. She told students about her family’s traditions for the holiday, including making their favorite dumplings using a recipe passed down from that same grandmother.
“How many of you have had dumplings before?” she asked. When several students raised their hands, she made another heart symbol with her hands.
Reflecting on Identity
Chen grew up in Ann Arbor as the daughter of Chinese immigrants; most of her extended family still lives in the city of Chongqing. She recalled being the only one in her elementary school eating homemade dumplings for lunch while the rest of her classmates had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. At the time, she said, her peers didn’t know what dumplings were.
“When I started teaching, I realized that I wanted to open up that part of myself a little more, share my culture and all the things that are so normal to me,” she said. “Being a new teacher, I was apprehensive, but there is such an openness to learn here that was really sweet and accepting.
“We do a lot of work in fifth grade talking about communities and our own identities — how we all have different backgrounds and that forms who we are as a human being. I feel it’s really important for them to get glimpses of other cultures, people, food, holidays, so it won’t be so new to them in the future. … And if I’m asking them to reflect on themselves and their identity, they need to be able to see mine, too — that I’m Chinese and these are some things that are important to my culture.”
That openness has led to students sharing more about their own cultures over the years, she said. One student wanted to teach the class about the way their family celebrates Christmas in Germany; another wanted to know the difference between Chen’s Chinese dumplings and their family’s traditional Lithuanian dumplings.
“We all celebrate in different ways and have things that are very close to our hearts,” Chen said. “I think (teaching students about Chinese culture) has opened up a space where everyone can share their experiences.”
Happiness and Prosperity
For this year’s Lunar New Year celebration at Breton Downs, Chen encouraged the fifth-graders to wear something red, a color that symbolizes luck in Chinese culture and features prominently in the holiday decorations. Since this is the Year of the Rabbit, they worked on drawing a “Chinese moon rabbit,” using a tutorial by author and illustrator Grace Lin.
Chen also handed out gifts, as is tradition during Lunar New Year festivities. Each student received a set of chopsticks and a decorative red envelope containing (fake) cash. The envelope, called hóng bāo in Mandarin Chinese, is a monetary gift given by elders during holidays or for special occasions, Chen explained.
‘We do a lot of work in fifth grade talking about communities and our own identities — how we all have different backgrounds and that forms who we are as a human being.’— teacher Nia Chen
Fifth-grader Caroline Hoekstra particularly enjoyed learning about the different foods that are popular in China for the holiday, she said.
“We were learning about what types of food they ate, and I didn’t know there were so many different types,” Caroline said. “I have had egg rolls, but I don’t think I’ve had any of the other foods. (Chen) told us that they have these really long noodles and you’re not supposed to cut them, and that symbolizes a really long life; I didn’t know that before.
“It made me feel really special to learn about (the holiday), because it’s not something that I would normally learn about.”
Classmate Nia Williams was excited to learn a few phrases in Mandarin Chinese; Chen walked them through saying both “Happy New Year!” and a traditional Lunar New Year greeting, “Happiness and prosperity!”
“I thought that was very interesting to learn, and really cool that (Chen) would teach us that, because it shows that it means a lot to her,” said Nia.
For Chen, hearing her students nail most of the Mandarin pronunciation had her feeling “all the feels,” she said.
“A big part of Chinese culture is that it’s shared,” she said. “I always send pictures from (the Breton Downs celebration) to my relatives in China … and I cannot tell you how excited they are for me to be sharing this with my students, for this to be accepted. And for my students to be so excited to learn, that’s the greatest joy.”