I grew up in a white, Irish Catholic suburb of Boston. My town was so overwhelmingly Catholic that I saw my same school friends 6 days a week — Monday through Friday I saw them at school; Sunday I saw them at CCD, a Catholic education program that teaches children about sacraments of the church, biblical readings and how to always feel guilty for bad thoughts and deeds.
As kids, we always geared up for Christmas and Easter. I’m sure the few Jewish students and the even fewer Atheists at my school somehow managed to get swept right into the mix of Catholic and Christian holidays.
But there was one day — one day — where everyone seemed to share the same interest. The same background. The same heritage.
Sure, slight correction. You may not have been suddenly and magically made Irish for the day, but you sure as heck wore green. A sea of children became unrecognizable as the chill of the March landscape became overwhelmed with kelly green, lime green, dark green and white green. If we moved fast enough, our group of children appeared to be wisps of grass blowing in the cold March air.
Everyone wanted to be Irish.
Working at a Catholic college, the ramp up to St. Patrick’s Day reaches epic proportions. Though many do share the ethnic Irish heritage, few embrace foundations of the religious meaning of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Rather than attend church in observance of a holy day of obligation, many go to the local church, the Church of Beer. And, like nearly everything on that day, even the beer is green. No matter where you go or who you are, you are wished a “Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!”
Though my family is not Chinese, we celebrate Chinese New Year. We don’t go all out — we don’t close up shop, surround ourselves with family, nor eat until our bellies extend past our knees. Rather, we take key aspects of the tradition and share it with our children. Admittedly, we Google which Lunar New Year it is and which animal sign is associated with that year. We wear red. We clean the house thoroughly the night prior. We sometimes get a new haircut (if we’ve planned enough in advance). I have a stash of red envelopes in my office drawer that I take out once a year and present to my kids.
On that day, I wish everyone I meet a “Happy New Year.” Mostly, I get funny looks. Usually, I have a second to explain that it’s Lunar New Year. Then, I nearly always get “But, Liza, you’re not Chinese.”
My response: “Recognizing that others celebrate traditions around the world isn’t dependent on me being that identity.”
I’m not being un-authentic. I know that I’m not Chinese. And, I know not to go so far as to offend a cultural tradition that spans thousands of years. I don’t pretend to be Chinese nor do I pretend to know more about Lunar New Year than the average person. But I do know that we need to expand our view of who’s holidays we celebrate, who’s holidays we hear about, and who’s holidays we see as weird or strange.
I want my children — my students, my colleagues, my friends, strangers — to be reminded that our country is made up of many different cultures and traditions. That the beauty of the United States is that people have the freedom to celebrate their faiths and beliefs without persecution. And, of course, we don’t always live up to that foundational belief of our country when we deem other people’s cultural traditions as “not-American.”
I recently was having coffee with a Vietnamese friend of mine who said that, earlier, a white woman smiled at her and said, “Happy New Year.” Though the exchange was brief and seemed friendly, my friend was pissed off. “Why the heck does she have to assume that I’m Chinese? This whole we-all-look-alike mess has got to end!” she exclaimed. “Girl,” I replied. “I kind of give that lady props for even knowing it was Lunar New Year. After all, how many people don’t even give a damn right now or who think that celebrating lunar-rabbit-anything is some ancient Chinese secret?”
I admit. On Chinese New Year, I wish everyone a “Happy New Year”, too. But, it’s not because I ignorantly think everyone is Chinese; I do it because I want to honor that we almost never get to celebrate our cultural heritage and most certainly never have it recognized by our fellow Americans. When I wish you a “Happy New Year”, it’s because we share a community of memory, a shared experience of simply having black hair, almond shaped eyes, and an assumption of what we sound like even before we open our mouths. We share a common experience of being both invisible and being a model of success. We share a common experience of being both loved and hated. We share a common experience of being both motivated and overbearing.
While we may never be able to know every cultural holiday nor every cultural tradition, it is important for us to include the diverse perspectives that make up our country and society. So, if I wish you a Happy New Year or Happy Saint Patrick’s Day or Happy Easter, Rosh Hashanah, Eid Sa’eed, or Happy Earth Day .. it’s because I want you to know that we can respect traditions of others. That, to be a truly inclusive society, we must include the traditions of others.
So, happy day to you!