January 27, 2001
Marvin Center 413
When Americans think of the new year, they think champagne, yelling in large crowds and the bright ball that drops in Times Square. Within my first step into Marvin Center room 413 to celebrate the Chinese New Year, I realized the Chinese take a slightly different approach.
The scene was calm, with GW graduate students, alumni and even small children chatting around tables throughout the room. The smell of Chinese food filled the air, and the warm faces welcomed me into the celebration.
The holiday took place three days earlier, but the weekend seemed to work better for GW’s Chinese community to meet and talk about the coming year.
A six-foot American among a crowd of Chinese people must have been a strange sight, but no one in the room seemed to take notice. Students and alumni approached me to say hi, insisting that I grab a bite to eat and enjoy the festivities. The group offered a feeling of acceptance uncommon to most functions around campus. This was not just an event that encouraged students to eat free food, but one that encouraged participation in a group’s culture.
The majority of the people in the room came to the United States from China for graduate school. This is their community away from home. With families mostly in China, the students find a new family among each other and check in with each other on the major holidays – namely the new year and the Chinese National Holiday in October.
Yong Wang, a 2000 GW alumnus, told me that the group of graduate students and alumni at the event are making history as the first generation out of communism that has a chance to visit America and prove themselves abroad. He said he values gatherings like the new year’s celebration because it allows Chinese students to tap resources in their own community and share aspirations for the future.
Chinese tradition was all around, even in the tables people surrounded. The circle is an important symbol in Chinese culture, so event organizers insisted on having round tables. Graduate student Sophie Zhang informed me that Chinese celebrations never use rectangular tables because circles symbolize a gathering is taking place.
A sign on the wall also spoke to Chinese tradition. Chinese symbols that mean “fortune” were hung upside-down to signify “coming fortune,” Zhang told me. If everyone in the room had fortune coming, I wasn’t about to argue.
The food at the event was not quite what one would expect at traditional Chinese New Year celebration. It was from Charlie Chang’s down the street. But Zhang told me there were just too many people to make homemade food. The kung pao chicken, broccoli beef, fried pork ribs and sweet and sour pork made for a great meal, but it reminded me more of take-out nights at work rather than a traditional celebration.
Grabbing a slice of orange before finishing my dinner, I realized I was exposing my ignorance of Chinese tradition – the fruit is saved for dessert.
Zhang is a vice president of the Chinese Student and Scholar Association, the group that organized the event and serves as a resource for Chinese graduate students. She said the group has almost 300 members and serves as students’ community within a large and diverse D.C.
The event got a little wild when organizers played the official Chinese New Year celebration act in China. Because the holiday was three days earlier, the CSSA was able to ship a tape of the live show from China.
In the taped performance, women in intricate, shiny outfits sang with dancers all around them and comedians entertained a crowd as big as the new year’s celebration in New York. But the main attraction for this event was another film playing next door that the group smartly shipped from China: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The CSSA used its connections to get the film, which plays in U.S. theaters now. While the violence in the movie did not quite capture the spirit of the Chinese New Year, it did serve the holiday’s purpose by attracting a large mix of students and alumni.
“We try to make people feel at home,” Zhang said about the celebration. And the often-overlooked GW Chinese community certainly did.