Cindy Chen

Chinese New Year is a novelty at first: when you’re a kid, and you see the lion dancing and hear the drum beats, you feel a sense of wonder for your culture in ways that hadn’t been prominent before living in America—not even living in a city that is primarily Asian. There is the flare of excitement that comes with knowing you’ll get hongbao from every adult inside the temple, that you’ll get to eat dumplings and tangyuan. You pray for sesame ones, your mouth watering at the thought of the white pearls oozing black sesame. Your family doesn’t follow traditions at home, but it’s enough to feel like you’re still connected to your culture through the celebrations you have here at the temple.

The drumbeats pound through the soles of your shoes, and you bounce up and down, your blood pumping with every resounding beat. Besides you, your friend is silent, her eyes fixed on the dancing figures in front.

According to your mother, when you were four, the lions used to scare you so much you would wail, hiding your face from the wide grin of their mouths and the large eyes that stare into your soul, despite being soulless themselves. Now, a little bit older, you giggle at the thought, seeing the lion’s head come closer. You see the fur lining that makes the lion look a bit like a stuffed animal, and you see the human feet poking out below the costume that reminds you that there are human eyes hiding behind that head, dancing for these lifeless lions. But it’s the spirit of things that make it feel real for you.

You stand on your tiptoes, your left hand pressed to the pillar beside you for balance, as you try to see above the adults’ heads for better view. The lion in front of you wiggles his head, tossing his mane as he lumbers closer to the man at the very front, who is clapping and shouting along with the crowd. The lion comes to a halt in front of the man, staring him down until the man hands over a red envelope, feeding it directly into the lion’s mouth. 


I wander inside with my friend, where the decorations are all taped up from our mad dash to do so the week before. I remember hanging the laminated cutouts of children on the doors, a boy on one side, a girl on the other, both facing each other to welcome people into the main lecture room. Inside, is a treasury of the past: the clusters of tables to represent booths of a carnival, the rainbow of streamer paper strung across the ceiling, and the rainbow pop up ball in the center. We’re here early to finish the last minute set up, so the room is devoid of people, though the supplies are all laid out for our use.

“Everything looks smaller,” my friend comments, her eyes taking in the streamer paper our brothers had spent hours putting up last week.

I want to comment that there are only four clusters of tables rather than six, that the extra space between booths expands the floor space to accommodate for more visitors, but the words that come out instead are: “I think we’re bigger.”

Perhaps when I was seven, or eight, or nine, the room would have seemed massive. I can imagine toddler me wandering through the room, gazing at the tables she can barely see over, and finding simple joy in watching adults paint words on paper with calligraphy brushes. It’s still fascinating now, especially at seventeen, I’ve had the opportunity to learn and practice my calligraphy.

“That’s the ugliest chun I’ve seen in my life,” my friend snorts when I lift the brush.

The strokes are lopsided and blotted. Some of the lines are too thin, whereas some of them are too thick, and the symmetry is a little off as well. It is, as my friend says, quite ugly. 


You and your friend are tasked with the simplest of decorating tasks: put fu upside down on doors. You’re not quite that tall yet, so you have to get up on your tip-toes to reach the top half of the door, but nobody says anything about it.

Your friend hands you the paper, and then the tape, and together the two of you scamper around the temple, searching for any doors you miss. When you’re first given this job, the fu start out in the center of the door, and with every year that passes, the paper rises higher and higher.

When the two of you are done, you wander the temple to find your brother hanging up the other decorations, the ones the two of you are too short or too young to handle. Slowly, the temple comes to life around you, imbued with the spirit of festivities, ready to welcome everyone into a new year.


About two weeks before Chinese New Year, my friend’s mom had asked us if we remembered the celebrations we had done when we were kids. I exchanged a glance with my friend, confused by the question.

“You mean the lion dancing?” My friend clarified. “The ones that we see every year?”

I had hid a smile, turning away to study the jug that sat on the beam connecting the wall to the second floor. I still remembered my friend’s brother struggling to get the jug ornament to stay two years ago. It was too big to slip through the bars of the railing, so he had to dangle it over and pray it wouldn’t tip and fall to the stairs below. I think he spent an hour balancing the ornament, and when we threatened to take it down that year, he refused to let us up the stairs.

“No, no,” her mother had said, sounding exasperated. “The carnival. The games.”

That grabbed my attention. It had been so many years since we had last done Chinese New Year in all its splendor, like the one I remembered as a young child. My friend wrinkled her nose, and I know she recalled some of the features, but less than I did.

When her mother had confirmed we were doing the festival the way we used to, I had been giddy with joy. “What’s so exciting about a few tables clumped together and games we have at home?” My friend asked me.

“Oh, come on, don’t you remember running around and getting to do all the crafts? We’re old enough to play Chinese chess and win against our brothers; it’ll be fun,” I insisted.

“Yeah,” she grumbled. “After we take five hours to put up all the decorations next week.”


The night before Chinese New Year, you lay awake in your bed, holding your breath at every little noise that comes from the night. The crickets are singing, and you want to whisper to them, sh sh, because the nian is on the hunt tonight.

“Not sleeping?” Your mother asks you, smoothing down your hair. You lean into her touch, grateful for her presence.

“I’m scared of the nian,” you confess to her, “where are our firecrackers?”

Your mother’s stories about listening to the firecrackers and getting to set some off pop in your mind, and when you squeeze your eyes shut hard enough, you pretend the sparks of color you see are from the explosions.

“We don’t have any firecrackers.” She tells you, but she cups your face in her hands, giving you a warm smile that makes you feel safe. “I’ll be here to fight the nian if it comes for you tonight, okay? So go to sleep; tomorrow is Sunday, and we’ll be going to temple.”

You smile back, appeased by your mother’s soothing, and snuggle closer to your mother.


The lion dancers come with the same flourish they always had, and the familiarity of the performance brings me strange comfort. The drumbeats spread through the entire temple, filling our hearts with the thump, thump, thump of joy that comes with being in a community. I bounce on my feet, anxious for the dancing to start, my eyes pinned to the dormant lions. There’s something charged about the stillness of the stage, how I don’t want to miss the start of their dance, even though I see this every year.

The drums slow, as if about to stop, before the rhythm starts up again, and the lions leap into the air. It’s mesmerizing, but I can see the red pants of the dancers, their white shoes that look so foreign to the giant head of the lion. It reminds me that this isn’t real. But still, it’s fun to watch the dancing, to wish that I could move with such confidence and power.

My friend is silent as she leans against the pillar, her eyes tracking the lions like me. I expect her to make a snarky comment about it, to downplay the energy of the moment. But she doesn’t say anything, perhaps because this has always been the one constant in our lives for this holiday. No matter what changes in the festivities inside the building, lion dancers are always hired to come and pay their respects. The decorations inside are simply props, meant to showcase the idea of the holiday, but at the end of the day, they are only plastic or paper. The real spirit of it comes from the traditions passed down from each generation.

The longest lion stops in front of one of the men who has been clapping and whooping, like they do every year. He laughs at the lion’s wiggling head, how it presses forward and leaps back, as if debating between charging or retreating. “Hongbao! Hongbao!” Someone else shouts, and the man obliging feeds the lion a red envelope.

“How much money do you think is in those envelopes?” I ask my friend, watching as the smaller lion goes through the same process with another man.

“A dollar, five at most,” she replies.

I remember when we were younger, we used to get at least ten dollars in those envelopes. Sometimes, if we were lucky, we’d get twenty. Last year, someone had given me an envelope with a quarter inside.


Your favorite thing about Chinese New Year is the lecture room, and the carnival-like set up that reminds you of your elementary school carnival that also comes once a year. The tables are rearranged into six clusters, and each booth has its own themes for you to explore. Your mother waves at you from where she is at the paper lantern booth, offering red construction paper to you. You follow her instructions, folding the paper carefully and cutting the lines into the paper before glueing it into a cylinder shape. When you finish attaching the handle, you show it to your mother, who tells you how beautiful it looks, and promises to keep it safe for you as you explore the other booths.

Your friend is at the games booth with your brothers, so you hurry over to where they are playing Chinese chess. It is your brother versus her younger brother, and you settle into a chair to watch them, not quite remembering what all the pieces do, but enjoying it all the same.

The decorations in the room are minimal: streamer paper across the ceiling, the traditional paper ball in the center, but the walls are mostly empty, the white paint complimenting the splash of color from the ceiling.

When the chess game winds down, you move to the calligraphy table, where adults have gone to and from it, asking calligraphy masters to write up blessings on red paper for them or crafting them themselves. You sit down to write one, even though your calligraphy is rather sloppy, but at least you remember your lessons as a child as to how to hold the brush properly. Your friend gleefully pours ink for you, and together, you write the word fu on one paper, and chun on the other.

Xie de zhen piao liang,” an adult compliments your writing, telling you how beautiful it looks. You beam at her, carefully letting the paper dry before you take it to your mother, who repeats the words. Later, when you go home, you’ll help your mother tape them to the wall next to the door—upside down, so as to ensure that fortune will descend upon your house. 


My friend and I sit on the steps of the stairs near the main entrance, staring down at the balls dangling in the air. Just a week ago, I helped my friend and our brothers set it up, standing on the first floor to direct them as they lowered the two to be the same height before tying it to the bannister. They sway in the wind, twirling back and forth, flashing light up towards me and my friend. From here, I can see the adults milling about below, and know that soon, they will come up the stairs to begin prayer.

“I think the adults are having more fun than we are,” my friend sighs, leaning her head against the wall, adjusting her glasses ever so slightly.

I’m having fun. I think, but I don’t say them out loud. “It’s not that boring,” I shrug, “It’s nice to do things the way we used to.”

“What’s so fun about folding paper lanterns and writing calligraphy anyway?” She tips her head back and stares at the ceiling.

Our brothers are preparing for ritual, and we should as well, since we’re old enough to take responsible roles rather than watching from the side. An hour before, they had been playing Chinese chess, refusing to relinquish their seat if only because nothing else in the room had caught their attention.

“We should probably go get dressed,” I tell her, avoiding her question, “your mom is going to kill us if we aren’t ready by the time she comes up.”

“I know,” she replies, yet still, we sit there, “I miss skipping the ceremony and sitting out here waiting for the long part to be over.”

Me too, I think, but I don’t say the words out loud. They’re a little pointless, iterating the things that we miss and can never have back. If I had to pick what to say, what to lament over the loss of, those wouldn’t be the words I would say. I wonder why when we were younger, it had been so easy to find joy in everything, and why now, it feels like basic happiness is beyond us.


You learn how to make dumplings, dipping your finger in water to trace the circle of the dough before pinching it together and sealing it shut. It’s sloppy, as your fingers aren’t quite coordinated in the way your mother’s practiced hands are, but they hold when you drop them in the boiling water.

Then, you roll plain tangyuan, cute bubbles of pink and white sprinkled in front of you. Your friend is lining up the treats one by one, alternating the colors. Your brothers are helping with the niangao, and you don’t envy their sticky hands as they work at the dough.

It’s early, the morning chill not quite gone, but you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.


Outside, the weather is warm, even though it is February, but the California sun is never one to stop shining. The food spread out over the tables in the parking lot of the temple, buffet style. It’s the generosity of the cooks, who come early in the morning and cook until noon, forgoing any of the celebrations to feed the masses. People mill about, chatting to each other as they pick up paper plates and scooping up rice and noodles and plenty of other vegetables. There are dumplings crafted like yuan to symbolize money and fortune and spring rolls to also bring wealth. On another table lies dessert, with the niangao and tangyuan.

We sit on the curb, eating merrily, glad for the one day where we won’t have to do chores after lunch. It’s relaxing, to see the five of us gathered here, present together in ways we almost never are. Our brothers are in college and rarely come every week, and even then, never at the same time. It’s another thing this year has brought back to me, though the chatter between us runs less of childish games, and more of college or teasing each other mercilessly about young love.


One of the stories you’re told about the new year is how the Chinese zodiac was formed. You and your brother tuck yourselves into your mother’s side, listening as she regales the race between all the forest animals to see who would be the Jade Emperor’s guards.

She talks about the cunning rat, who knew his size was a disadvantage, and convinced the hardworking and kind ox to carry him across the river, before leaping to the other bank and claiming victory.

“That’s why I’m so smart!” Your brother proclaims, and your mother laughs and gives him a hug, agreeing.

You pout, because you’re a dragon, but your mother continues the story, telling of the great dragon, who swept in at fifth place.

“Dragons also represent intelligence, wisdom, and good fortune,” she tells you. You beam at her. It’s a lucky thing, you know, to be born in the dragon year; it’s the most favored year for all Chinese families, even if it’s fifth ranked.

“It’s not about how fast you can finish,” your mother reminds you as the two of you bicker on whose zodiac is better, “it’s about the spirit.”


When the last of the people finally leave the temple, their arms carrying bags of leftovers from the abundant feast we had outside, I know that at last, we can begin tearing down the decorations. It’s tedious, but we can’t leave it for next week, when it’s no longer the new year.

“Remember to keep all the decorations in separate bags,” my friend’s mother instructs us. It’s supposed to make it so next year decorating will be much easier, because all we’ll have to do is pull each bag and take it to the location before taping whatever is in the bags to the wall where it had been last year. We did it last year as well, but I know for a fact that the walls this year still look drastically different, especially the random cluster of decorations we pasted onto the wall next to the restrooms as a joke. They still all go into one bag, and we smirk at each other, knowing that at least we’ll remember where these can go next year.

I’m not sure why someone doesn’t snap photos of the entire temple to document how we put everything up. Pictures last longer than memories do, and are more accurate. I wonder if pictures would have helped us recapture the memories of past traditions, if photographs could spark magic the way I remember it.

Tearing down the decorations is both satisfying and heartbreaking. It takes us hours each year to put it up, and in thirty minutes, all of them are gone from the walls. I stack the papers together, slipping them into the labeled plastic bags for easier storage. I try to put the decorations in order from where I had torn them from the wall to make it easier for me to remember how we put it up.

There are a few decorations that get left behind, mostly because we had forgotten all the obscure places we had hid them: such as the calligraphy blessing in the bathroom stall and the one in the small room where we like to play. By the time we discover them, it’s too late to bring the decorations box back out to stow them, and so they remain up, every single year.

I stare at the one in the room now, tracing the characters with one finger, wondering if our brains purposefully forget to collect certain decorations in an attempt to leave something everlasting. No matter what changes, it remains an integral part of the temple, imprinted in this space until someone finally tears it down.

I’m glad that the Chinese don’t wish for anything in the new year other than wealth, luck, and happiness, because there are endless things a child can wish for. I would have wished for toys, for games that my brother and I can play when we are at home, or for my parents to take me to Las Vegas over winter break. 

What I should have wanted to wish for was for everything to stay perfectly still, for time to stop on those joyful moments when I still felt like a child: giddy, carefree, and beautifully innocent. 

I drop my hand from the decoration on the door, my eyes unable to leave the fading red of the paper. I’m a little like it: vibrant red in my youth with the ability to capture any moment with joy and effervescence, slowly losing color as the years pass by. 

I can hear my friend out in the hall, calling for me. My brother’s voice joins her, telling me that it’s time to leave. I don’t move. If I stare hard enough at this left behind decoration, I won’t have to look past it to see that the walls outside are bare, stripped of their festivity, or pass by the mirror that reminds me that I am years older now. If I look long enough at this scripture and imagine this temple as it was all those years ago, maybe I can make it true.


An adult helps you light the candle in your hands, and you stare at the flickering fire, feeling soothed and warmed by the flame even though the heat hasn’t started to seep through the glass yet. The lights are off in the prayer room, and everyone stands in rows, a candle in their palm.

It’s hard to make out anyone’s face unless they cup their light closer to them, but you stare out into the sea of candles, your breath caught in your chest. Your mother whispers to you that this is to ask for blessings for the new year, so that your family will be fortunate. You close your eyes, and even hidden in the darkness, you imagine you can still see those flames.

That’s what it must look like, you imagine, for those watching above. No matter how dark the world is, at least you still have this light in your hands, guiding people to you, making sure you aren’t alone.


“Did you have fun today?” My mom asks as we drive home.

My brother grunts from where he sits in the driver’s seat, a noncommittal noise that my mom must take for affirmation, because she doesn’t press him further. When she looks at me, I give a shrug, trying for a smile, but not achieving it.

“In the past, the two of you never wanted to leave,” my mother recalls, “sometimes you had soccer games, and we had to leave early, and you,” she glances back at me, “would cry, because you wanted to stay longer.”

“I had fun,” I finally admit, a quiet admission, as if someone will laugh at me if I say it any louder than that. And it was fun, to see something from my childhood spring back to life. But I can’t imagine loving the festivities so much I would want to stay for longer than an hour, when the booths—whether it be lantern making, calligraphy, the boardgames, or other origami—don’t take up that much space and time. In the span of ten minutes, I had made a full round the room, and settled in the chair to watch my brothers play ten rounds of Chinese chess before we were finally called upstairs.

“The games,” my mother continues, “wasn’t it just like before?”

Yeah, I think, yeah, it was. The tables, the activities, the lion dancing, the food—everything was structurally the same. Nothing had really changed since the last time we did a carnival, except me.

Perhaps the truth is: memories are only constructed realities, heightened by the brain to focus on certain aspects, emphasizing them so that they fill in for all the forgotten parts. Any wishes for something to return to how a person remembers it is impossible, because those things never existed in the first place.

Cindy Chen is a second year student majoring in English. She spends her free time reading and writing, and hopes to one day become a published author. She can be found either frantically typing to hit writing deadlines or staring blankly into space hoping her stories will write themselves.