Dining alone, or maybe not

Monday, February 3, 2020 - 2:40pm

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Illustration by Taylor Schott

It was Friday, Jan. 24. I was laying in my bed, only awake because of the sunlight streaming in through my dorm window. After a while, I decided it was time to finally get up, so I rolled over and reached for my phone sitting atop my desk. A calendar event notification topped the screen.  

It read: “Tomorrow, Lunar New Year.” 

My family has always loosely followed typical Lunar New Year traditions. We have a straightforward way of celebrating: We clean to get rid of any bad luck and make space for good luck. My brother and I receive red envelopes from relatives, usually sent in the mail or as electronic money transfers. My mom cooks us dinner, supplementing our meal with a few boxes of take-out from the dim sum restaurant and an order of noodles from our favorite Vietnamese place. This is for longevity, my mom always said. 

We’ve never had a big family reunion dinner like we’re supposed to in order to celebrate the holiday. Traditionally, the New Year dinner is special, mainly because it’s a big occasion for families to reunite with family members who live far from home. It’s supposed to be an intimate setting; families sit around the table for hours catching up with relatives they don’t often see. Normally, the food is entirely home-cooked, and there are often fireworks later in the night. For my family, there are no fireworks, and dinner is usually just the four of us — my parents, my brother and myself. A “reunion” with our other family members is usually out of the picture as most of our extended family lives in the Philippines. 

Regardless of how small or simple or unconventional my family’s Lunar New Year activities have been, it’s always felt like a tradition for me, made even more special because it’s a time of closeness with my immediate family. On this one particular day every year, it’s what I’m used to. 

As I stared down at my phone screen alerting me of the upcoming holiday, I knew there was nothing traditional about how I’d be celebrating this Lunar New Year. It’d be the first one I’d spend away from home. For the first time, I wouldn’t be cleaning with my family. I wouldn’t be comparing red envelope money with my brother. I wouldn’t be sitting at the dinner table among plates and trays of noodles. I would be alone, hours away from any of them. 

This realization stuck with me as my day went on. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and the event on my phone calendar kept the thought of the Lunar New Year in the back of my head. Remembering all the things I’d miss doing with my family brought back a wave of nostalgia and yearning that I hadn’t prepared for. I was left feeling homesick on the holiday during which I was meant to be surrounded by those I love and those who love me. 

Of course, it’s not like Ann Arbor is completely devoid of any Lunar New Year celebrations. There were various Lunar New Year celebrations being held across campus that weekend — the Chinese department was holding an event that Friday afternoon and a couple of student organizations were holding events on the actual holiday. After looking through a couple of the flyers and invitations online though, I decided not to attend any of these events. The idea of going to them felt weird. They couldn’t offer what I was used to. The Lunar New Year is a holiday that has become deeply personal to me — so simply going to a substitute event felt too removed. 

Ignoring the Lunar New Year entirely wasn’t an option either, because that felt strange, too. If I did that, I felt like I was letting go of the tradition of celebrating entirely, something I wasn’t prepared to do. 

Even if I wasn’t spending the New Year with my family, I still wanted to celebrate it. I’d just celebrate it in my own new way. 

Instead, on the first day of the Lunar New Year, I convinced three of my friends to go out for dinner to eat ramen on State Street, with my mother’s words about noodles and longevity swimming around in the back of my mind. Once we arrived at the restaurant, it was clear I wasn’t the only one who had this idea. It was packed, and the waiter informed us it would most likely be a 45-minute wait. 

At that, my friends turned to me, looked at me as if to ask, “Well?” 

It was up to me. 

“I want noodles,” I said.

In the end, I did get the noodles I wanted. The steam from my bowl of ramen fogged my glasses as I sat at a table of four, surrounded by my friends. For a moment, I thought about my parents and brother back home. I thought about the cleaning, the red envelopes and the family dinners. Then, I looked down at my noodles and figured that I was definitely going to be OK, even if I wasn’t spending the Lunar New Year with my family. Even when I’m separated from them, I can still practice and experience little pieces of the traditions we’d created.   

As a freshman in college, I’ve slowly been learning that this is something that I’m going to have to get used to. The Lunar New Year isn’t the only occasion I’ll spend away from my family. As students moving away from our childhood homes, we naturally grow into more independent lives: Learning to create our own traditions is simply a part of the process of growing up.