Sadie couldn’t wait to welcome in the Lunar New Year. She helped her parents decorate their home with red and gold banners for luck, picked out a red embroidered outfit to wear to school and made sure to tidy her blue-walled room to sweep out evil spirits.
It is the Year of the Ox, the first time that zodiac sign has appeared since the year she was born, thousands of miles away in China’s Hunan province. She spent the first few months of her life in an orphanage before she was adopted by an American couple. She was 16 months old.
She’s now Sadie Larson, a spunky, long-haired 11-year-old Lake Arrowhead girl who has no memories of her homeland but has slowly reconnected with its rich traditions and customs with the help of her adoptive parents, Steve and Linda.
“I like celebrating because I feel closer to my culture,” she said. “And I like eating egg rolls and wontons.”
For the Larsons and thousands of U.S. families who have adopted children from Asia, the Lunar New Year is a moment to help their children reconnect with their homeland and for parents to discover a culture that would otherwise be foreign to them. Lunar New Year, which occurs today, is regarded as the most important cultural holiday among Chinese, Vietnamese and some Koreans.
And although the traditions the Larsons have adopted may stray a bit from the age-old customs of Sadie’s ancestors, their embrace of both cultures in their everyday lives has made their daughter feel proud of her heritage.
Sadie and her 9-year-old adoptive sister, Sophie, who was born in Vietnam, have pored over books and magazines about the traditions from their homelands. During a snow day a few years ago, they made scrapbooks about the ways to celebrate the Lunar New Year.
“I wrote about loud firecrackers,” Sadie said. “That they’re used to scare away evils.”
Sophie nodded knowingly: “I just read about that!”
The Larsons say they celebrate Lunar New Year with as much gusto as Christmas. Linda, who grew up in Minnesota and knew little about Asian culture until she moved to Southern California, wants to make sure that her daughters know what it means to be Chinese and Vietnamese.
Steve and Linda have traveled with the children to Vietnam and China and make regular trips to Orange County’s Little Saigon and Los Angeles’ Chinatown. Sadie and Sophie belong to a play group of children who were adopted from China and Vietnam. In March, the family went to the village where Sophie was born so she could meet her birth mother.
When her girls were younger, Linda read books and pamphlets about Chinese and Vietnamese culture given to the family by the adoption agencies and spent hours scouring the Internet for ideas about how to welcome in the new year. A few years ago, she learned that orange trees symbolize rebirth and growth. She bought one and hung lucky red envelopes from the branches.
“They love this time of the year,” said Linda, 51. “They keep telling me, ‘You have to do this, you have to do that.’ They are old enough now that they’re starting to do it on their own, so that it’s not just me doing it.”
A few days before the Lunar New Year, Sadie and Sophie rummaged through a box of bright paper lanterns, banners and dolls dressed in Vietnamese and Chinese clothes. They ran up and down the stairs putting up decorations, followed by their Pomeranian-mix, Asia.
Sadie pulled out a small bamboo wall hanging inscribed with Chinese characters and hung it in the kitchen. She bought it during a visit when she was 7 from a market near the orphanage where she once lived. She said it’s a memento to remind her of where she came from.
Celebrating Lunar New Year with the Larsons is a smorgasbord of traditions from China and Vietnam, with an American twist. They hang up lanterns that are more traditionally lit for the mid-autumn moon festival and snack on homemade moon cakes usually eaten during the fall holiday. This year, Sadie is making a batch of moon cakes to sell for her sixth-grade business project, but instead of the traditional salted egg yolk in the middle, hers are gingerbread.
The Larsons made sure to buy packs of lucky red envelopes -- called li xi -- which are traditionally stuffed with crisp dollar bills and exchanged for wishes of luck, prosperity and happiness. Sadie and Sophie will fill the envelopes with chocolate coins and give them to friends.
“My friends are like, ‘These are so cool-looking!’ ” Sadie said.
For many Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean families, Lunar New Year is a time to pass along deep traditions that could otherwise get lost in America and to teach their children about their heritage. In that sense, what the Larsons try to pass on to their girls is no different.
The family plans to go to Little Saigon, home to the largest Vietnamese enclave in the country, to attend the Vietnamese new year’s festival in Garden Grove this week to see traditional dances, lion dancing and a beauty pageant.
For the occasion, Sophie will wear a traditional Vietnamese tunic, or ao dai, which she bought during a visit to Vietnam in March. The outfit is sky blue, her favorite color.
“I like it because it’s silky,” Sophie said. “And stretchy.”
“It’s very important for us to teach our girls where they came from,” Linda said. “It’s up to them if they want the heritage and culture in their lives, but it’s my job to give them what they need so that they could make that choice.”
A few years ago, Linda and Steve gave Sophie a picture book about the traditions of Tet, or Vietnamese New Year.
“Dear Sophie Lan,” she wrote. “Chuc Mung Nam Moi. (Happy New Year, Happy Tet!) We hope you always enjoy learning about the culture of the country you were born in. We love you! Mom and Dad.”