‘It’s In Our Genes’: Gainesville Chinese Find Ways To Celebrate Lunar New Year During COVID-19

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The most important festival in the Chinese calendar, a holiday also celebrated by Koreans, Vietnamese and more — Lunar New Year — comes this Friday. In Gainesville, many persist in finding creative ways to celebrate under the new restrictions.

“Celebrating the Lunar New Year is an excellent opportunity to show how we love one another,” Hongjun Li, pastor of Gainesville Chinese Christian Church, said. “We want to show it through making dumplings, which is a typical tradition to create the atmosphere for the Lunar New Year.”

The church plans to make dumplings in each member’s home separately, then pack and send them to the church where those celebrating, especially UF students who cannot go back to China to celebrate with family, can pick up the dumplings on Saturday. Church members will deliver the dumplings to the homes of any who can’t pick up.

“We will send some dumplings to the older families who need help. The eldest person among them is 97 years old.” Li said.

“In the past year, some families have lost their loved ones because of the pandemic. They can feel very lonely at this time. We want to make them feel warm during the festival.”

According to Li, the church will prepare 1,200 dumplings and package them into 100 lunch boxes.

Gainesville Gospel Chinese Church canceled the Gospel Outreach Meeting they’ve held every year during Lunar New Year since 2018. Steven Wang, the pastor, said they won’t do anything in person, though they may celebrate online.

Many Chinese groups in Gainesville are doing the same.

UF Taiwanese Student Association and Gainesville Chinese School will hold a joint celebration on Zoom this Friday night with games and a joke contest.

Michi Liu, principal of Gainesville Chinese School, wanted to give up on celebrations this year because of the pandemic. But she finally decided to create an online event. What would Lunar New Year be without celebration?

“I feel like it’s hard to set aside our culture and traditions, which are deeply ingrained in our mind,” Liu said. “It’s in our genes. I feel that Chinese will always want to celebrate the Lunar New Year, the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Dragon Boat Festival, no matter where they are.”

Typically about 250 people attend Lunar New Year celebrations at Gainesville Chinese Christian Church according to church deacon Peiru Fu. But this year attendance is limited by physical distancing, and the events are not completely open to the general public.

“Usually, we can post posters on the bulletin boards of the university and then there will be many students and scholars willing to come to the activities,” Fu said. “But now most people have a lot of concerns.”

Fu said planning usually begins half a year in advance, but this year, with all the unpredictability caused by COVID-19, they didn’t begin until January.

“The activity may be a little complicated now,” Fu said, “but it’s the only way we have to  express our willingness to celebrate the Lunar New Year.”

Zoom activities present unique challenges.

According to Michi Liu, more than 200 people signed up for their Lunar New Year celebration activities last year and they had to limit the number because of insufficient space. This year, only about 80 signed up.

To avoid awkward silence and boredom, Liu has cut the meeting to one and a half hours instead of the usual two or three.

The age of those participating may also be affected by going virtual. According to Qianting Lan, vice president of UF Taiwanese Student Association, there are only four people over 50 signed up for the Zoom activities.

“I’m a little worried about them since they may not very familiar with computer,” Lan said. “We made some screenshots to help them. I hope every one can enter the meeting smoothly and have fun.”

Hua-Gen Chinese School canceled their annual Spring Festival gala, at which teachers and students give performances to celebrate the Lunar New Year. For students learning Chinese, the gala is a chance to grow confidence in themselves and their culture as they learn in preparation for the show — another of the pandemic’s many losses.

“The same time last year, when the pandemic just started, I spent several weeks considering whether I should close the classes,” the school’s principal, Yao Dai, said, “and then to be safe, I finally decided to pause.

“It’s really a pity that our teachers and students had already prepared the shows for that year’s gala, but we had to cancel it.”

It’s a mark of how long the pandemic has stretched that yet another gala has been canceled. This year, they will mark the holiday with a video instead.

“We may find that’s what this year is when looking back and watching this video,” Yao Dai said. “We didn’t stop and give up our school.

“Holding a gala will be like a ‘plus.’ The most important thing for us now is to keep our school running along the way.”

Editor’s note: Quotes for this story were originally spoken in Mandarin and translated into English by the reporter.

About Zhe Zhang

Zhe is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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