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Year of the Rabbit hops onto campus at UC Irvine with all-day celebrations for Lunar New Year

Members of the Chinese Southern Wind lion dance team.
Members of the Chinese Southern Wind lion dance team perform for guests at the annual Lunar New Year celebration at the student center at UC Irvine on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)
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The Year of the Rabbit is nearly upon us, officially getting underway on Sunday.

The students and faculty at UC Irvine got a head start Tuesday on celebrating the Lunar New Year in person at both its student center and the Irvine Barclay Theater after a two-year hiatus brought about by the pandemic.

Bill Maurer, the dean of the school of social sciences, said the university has hosted an event for Lunar New Year of this scale for several years. The event was inspired by a conversation with longtime university donors John and Marilyn Long, who asked what UC Irvine could do for international students who couldn’t be with their families for the holiday at the start of the winter quarter. In response, Maurer said, the university decided to hold a big party.

“We really had no idea the level of community ... and student enthusiasm that it would attract,” Maurer said. “It’s grown over the years now. We’ve got a ton of sponsors now, and we’ve been joined by many of the schools across the Irvine campus. Now it’s become this really amazing thing.”

About 1,000 people attended the first event in 2016. Maurer said roughly 3,500 people showed up in 2020, the last time the event was held fully in-person.

Guests enjoy making paper lanterns at the annual Lunar New Year celebration.
Guests enjoy making paper lanterns at one of the annual Lunar New Year celebrations in the student center at UC Irvine on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Tuesday’s events were split into two segments. The first was organized by the university’s department of East Asian studies and held in the morning, giving students an opportunity to learn how Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese communities celebrate Lunar New Year. That was followed by film screenings, a festival and performances at the Irvine Barclay Theater.

“What’s great about this event is that UCI is such a diverse place with a very diverse student body. This really provides everyone an opportunity to learn about Lunar New Year and the different ways and cultures that celebrate it,” Maurer said.

Hu Ying, the department chair for East Asian studies, said the morning events have been going on longer than the ones at the Irvine Barclay Theater. At their conception, the activities were primarily organized by the language instructors — those who taught Chinese and Japanese — and were designed for language students. They expanded from there.

At the student center Tuesday, some students were kicking around jegi, which is similar to a shuttlecock and made from paper wrapped around a coin, while others tried on traditional clothing such as hanboks and kimonos to take pictures. Others took their chances on a traditional Vietnamese dice game called Bau cua tom ca, similar to a casino game of craps.

Guests enjoy trying on traditional Japanese kimono robes.
Guests enjoy trying on traditional Japanese kimono robes at the annual Lunar New Year celebrations in the student center at UC Irvine on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“Typically, we have about 200 to 400 students participating throughout the day,” said Hu, adding that Vietnamese doesn’t actually belong to the East Asian studies department as it is considered to be part of Southeast Asia. But, like China, Japan and Korea, Vietnam also celebrates Lunar New Year.

“This is really pretty exciting, even though we’re doing pretty much the same as what we were doing before. But we really were online for only a year and a bit. So, to be able to do it hands-on ... I mean we did a virtual Lunar New Year, but it’s really not the same,” Hu added. “You can’t teach somebody crafts online.”

“Mostly, I think people are just really happy to be back,” Hu said.

Second-year international student Jean Kwon attended with her friend, Navdha Jindal. Kwon said she is from South Korea and is attending UC Irvine to study computer engineering while Jindal is studying informatics.

Kwon said her family celebrates Lunar New Year every year. Jindal, who is from India, learned about the tradition through her friends. Kwon said she felt it was nice that the school provides an opportunity to learn and share culture and to enjoy the celebration with others on campus.

Students practice traditional Japanese origami, or paper folding.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“I think especially because we’re both international students, I think it’s really nice,” Jindal said. “I come from a different part of the world where I’ve never seen something like this before, so it’s really cool that because of events like these that we can have that cultural exchange where I can get to understand my peers a little better.”

Emmanuel de la Cruz said he really didn’t know too much about Lunar New Year, except that it was an important holiday to the East Asian community.

He said he was attending the event because he heard about it through his Japanese class but also because he is interested learning more about his friends’ Asian cultures. At some of the booths, he tried on clothes and played some of the games. He said he was glad events like this existed for him to learn from, adding that he’d like the event to be even bigger than it is now.

English major Christine Chuang said she thought it was pretty cool that the university would host an event for Lunar New Year.

“When you’re a college student, you don’t usually get to go to places. You don’t usually have a car,” Chuang said. “You usually have to walk to places and so having Lunar New Year events — events that are celebrating an important holiday — on campus and therefore easier for many people ... and UCI students, specifically, to come and attend and also celebrate and find community.”

Students play a card game as they celebrate the annual Lunar New Year celebration.
Students play a card game as they celebrate the annual Lunar New Year celebration in the student center at UCI on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

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