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A radio producer’s Chinese-Thai New Year traditions

Songkran or Thai New Year water festival in Pattaya, Thailand in 2009. Photo by Flickr user Mohd Faisl Md Noor licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

On Monday, we spoke to Wendy Chung, editor of WAPOW magazine, about her Chinese-Vietnamese family’s Lunar New Year traditions. Today, we’re talking to Quincy Surasmith, an assistant producer for KPCC’s “In Person” program and the host and producer for the Asian Americana podcast, which explores the intricacies of Asian American culture and launched in 2016. Surasmith grew up in Cerritos, Calif. with his parents, who have been in the U.S. since 1980, and an older brother. He majored in history and theater at the University of California, Santa Cruz and has been podcasting since 2014. Surasmith told us about how he celebrates Lunar New Year to connect with his family’s Chinese-Thai New Year traditions and to show solidarity with other Asian American communities. He explained more in our conversation below.

Growing up, how did you celebrate Lunar New Year?

I am mixed Chinese/Thai American. My dad was born in Thailand and grew up there. Coming here, Lunar New Year was a thing — sometimes my dad will call and say, “Why didn’t you call me to wish me a Happy Lunar New Year?” [laughs] It wasn’t nothing, but it wasn’t a thing we would go out and celebrate.

My mom would have friends who are Chinese or Vietnamese and they would send hong bao [red envelopes]. As I grew up, when I went into more Pan-Asian American spaces, I learned more of the actual practices, like wearing red or eating round things or long things [round foods symbolize wealth and reunion, while long foods, like noodles, symbolize longevity].

We would focus on Thai New Year, which is celebrated among another southeast Asian countries and we would go to temple for that.

Can you go into what Thai New Year is?

Thai New Year is based on a southeast Asian Buddhist calendar. It’s called Songkran and it’s also shared with Cambodian New Year, Burmese New Year, Lao New Year. Then there are parallel new years that are in South Asia, from India and Sri Lanka — I don’t think they consider them New Years, but an equivalent holiday. And it always happens in mid-April.

When I was a kid, that was a big deal. My mom was really into going to temple for it. And so we do all the temple things, go get a New Year blessing and do religious ceremonies where you listen to the monks chant. But also, water is heavily involved in Thai New Year. It’s like washing away the old year and preparing for the new year. What happened was — you would make a donation to the temple and then you’d get a bowl of water. Then you would go down the line where you would rinse a Buddhist statue off and then you would pour water onto monks’ hands and then you would pour water on the hands of elders in that line.

And then the other big tradition is that Thai folks in April for the new year will have a huge water fight. That’s usually during Thai’s hottest season. So in Thailand you would get buckets or cups of water and throw water at each other. But here, in Thai-American spaces, especially in the 90s, when all those water guns were super-sold to kids — all the kids would bring all their water guns and fill them up and have a big water fight all day. That was really fun.

Have you been able to carry on these traditions as an adult?

Personally, I don’t do a ton for either New Year anymore, because I don’t really go to temple anymore. Sometimes, I’ll go to Thai Town for their Lunar New Year festival. But I think Thai Town just uses it as an excuse to have a Thai American festival. So their Lunar New Year will also have a beauty pageant and Thai boxing and then a bunch of booths will come out to sell food. As far as [Chinese] Lunar New Year goes, I just try to eat noodles and round things — noodles and dumplings.

Is celebrating Lunar New Year a bonding thing for you and other Asian Americans?

That’s part of the fun. I enjoy different New Year traditions and just different holiday traditions that are Asian American specific, like going to a Japanese American Oshogatsu for the New Year, which falls along Western New Year. That involves eating the ozoni, with the rice flower in the soup and fish. And on Christmas, I gather a big group of Asian Americans and I go to Canter’s and I eat Jewish deli food, because it’s the reverse of Jewish folks on the East Coast who go to Chinese restaurants because they’re open on Christmas. And that’s been my big tradition, even though it’s not really a New Year’s one.

Even though I mentioned all this Thai American stuff I did growing up, I actually didn’t feel super connected to the big Thai-American community. My family wasn’t quite “in” with the main community. We didn’t hang out with a lot of Thai people, comparatively. I didn’t go to the main temple. I went to a different temple with my family. So I got really into hanging out in different Asian American spaces. Growing up in Cerritos is very Asian American, but it isn’t very Thai American. So I would hang out with Filipino kids and Chinese kids and Korean kids and Vietnamese kids. As an adult, a lot of the more organized events are still very Chinese American and Japanese American and Filipino American, because these are bigger communities that have had more organizations to build up this stuff. So even having those traditions, even though they are not my own ethnically, allow me to feel solidarity with other Asian American communities and not just in times of fighting for rights. I don’t claim it as “mine,” but I claim it as, “Here’s what communities close to mine do, and I should experience it and respect it.”

Upcoming Lunar New Year Festivals

Feb. 16 – City of San Gabriel Lunar New Year Festival
Feb. 16-17 – L.A. Chinatown Firecracker Run
Until Feb. 17 – Lunar New Year at Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood
Through the rest of February – Lunar New Year decorations, special offers and exhibits up at Westfield Santa Anita Mall in Arcadia.

Read Wendy Chung’s interview here.
Read Kenny Uong’s interview here.

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