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10 fun ways to celebrate Lunar New Year

The biggest holiday of the year for many Asian cultures is here: Lunar New Year. In China, everyone goes home to their families; kids get weeks off of school; and some American businesses even grind to a halt.  

Traditionally, people begin preparing before the holiday starts. They pay off their debts, pass out red envelopes, clean their homes and more. But you don't have to have an Asian family to celebrate Lunar New Year. The celebration lasts for 15 days, and there are plenty of fun ways for anyone to join in.

1. Eat some really good food

What’s a celebration without fantastic food? Head over to the San Gabriel Valley to be transported to Asian food heaven, or learn to cook a new dish. Some traditional meals this time of year include whole fish, rice cakes, mochi balls and dumplings.

“They’re in the same shape as ancient Chinese money,” said Xiayi Zhang, a Los Angeles resident who was born in China. “So it’s like if you eat a lot of dumplings you’ll get rich.”

Eat up.

2. Catch a lion dance at a parade

Did you know that Saturday's annual parade in Chinatown is more than a century old? This year the grand marshal is California State Treasurer John Chiang, and you can expect other local politicians, community leaders and celebrities to show up, including the three kids from “Fresh Off The Boat.” 

And yes, there will be a lion dance.

“The lion dance is a way to scare off spirits or bad spirits or any bad mojo that is around from the previous year,” said Connie Vuong, executive director of L.A.’s Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

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It gets pretty crowded and it’s also supposed to be quite warm this weekend, so don’t forget your sunscreen and water bottle. 

3. Visit a temple

Missed the midnight ceremony and firecrackers in Chinatown? No problem. You can still go and visit a temple any time. This time of year, many families will go and pray not only to deities but to their ancestors as well. A common tradition it to light a lamp or candle, usually for a nominal donation. 

“It’s just a beautiful time to go to the temples because it’ll be colorful and lively,” Zhang said. 

Both the Thien Hau Temple in Chinatown and the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights –  hailed as the largest temple in America – have English-speaking staff available if you have any questions, Zhang said. 

4. Learn how to say “Happy New Year” in Chinese

Xin nián kuài lè! (For pronunciation, here’s a little help from Google.)

“Xin nián” means “new year,” while “kuài lè” means happiness or joy.

Bonus points if you learn how to write the characters.

Up for a real challenge? Start learning Mandarin Chinese. It’s by far the most commonly spoken language in the world, with more than a billion native speakers. Even Mark Zuckerberg is learning Mandarin, and more and more schools are starting to provide Mandarin classes and programs. 

5. Read a book

Take your reading list to the next level and add a work by author Mo Yan, who mixes “hallucinatory realism” with vivid tales of life in modern Chinese communist society. Many of his works aren’t readily available in China for obvious reasons but are highly popular in the West. He won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012. 

Mo Yan’s works are “very gritty,” said Christopher Magriney, a Chinese instructor at USC. “He’s sort of poking fun at the ridiculousness of [a] society where everything is controlled.”

Need help choosing a title? Try “Life and Death are Wearing Me Out.”

Other options: Take throwback to high school and re-read (or actually read) “The Joy Luck Club.”

Or for a fun beach novel, “Crazy Rich Asians” is for you. No judgment here. 

6. Take a calligraphy or painting class

If you’re an artsy person – and even if you’re not – consider taking a few classes in Chinese calligraphy or watercolor painting. Soon you could be producing beautiful works of art to gift to friends or hang in the living room. 

7. Visit a museum

It’s a perfect time to check out the Chinese American Museum in downtown Los Angeles or USC’s Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena to browse art, history and more. The CAM even has a lantern festival coming up on March 5.

8. Watch a Chinese movie

Take a break from Netflix and dive into “Mang Jing,” which translates to “Blind Shaft” and is banned in China. The 2003 film is a brutal but “savagely funny” story about coal mine workers and corruption in rural, contemporary China.

9. Wear more red

It’s a lucky color. A friend of mine even went out and specially bought red underwear to wear as we rang in the new year. I’m not kidding.  

10. Plan a trip to Asia

Because it’s never too early to start planning your next vacation.

Planning to check any of these off your to-do list? Tweet at me @anniezyu.

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