York County family adapts Lunar New Year festivities to COVID-19

Harper Ho
York Dispatch

Sporting traditional Vietnamese dresses, "áo dài," traditionally worn by women on formal occasions, Victoria Huynh and her mother plated dishes Friday while her father sliced homemade roasted pork belly at their home in Manchester Township.

The Huynh family has been busy preparing food and prepping their house to usher in the Lunar New Year, which is the equivalent of Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one.

Lunar New Year — also known as Chinese New Year or Spring Festival — is celebrated each year according to the lunar calendar that's based on the monthly cycles of the moon's phases. 

Lunar New Year happens on the first new moon, which this year fell on Friday. It's also the year of the Ox, which is a zodiac sign that symbolizes hard work. 

But this year is different, Huynh said, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused the shuttering of business and cancelation of festivals for almost a year. 

"Usually we go to Virginia to attend the festivals and markets, but with corona (virus) being here, it's not safe. We decided to celebrate here in our house," said Huynh, 18, a student at Penn State York. 

Lunar New Year is the world's biggest annual mass migration, during which hundreds of millions of Chinese people head home from the city to celebrate with families in the country. 

For Asian Americans, too, the occasion meant visiting relatives, celebrating with a lineup of never-ending Asian dishes and dispensing money-filled red envelopes to the younger members of the family.

Heo quay, thịt kho tàu, bánh hỏi and sticky rice are some of the dishes prepared by the Huynh family in celebration of the Lunar New Year in Manchester Township, Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

But the pandemic put a halt to that tradition this year, and that was the case for Huynh's family. The coronavirus pandemic restricted celebrations, which traditionally bring families together in large groups or to festivals and gatherings at churches or temples.

The Vietnamese Alliance Church of York, for example, canceled its annual Lunar New Year program this year. Members said the event draws hundreds of locals to a potluck style celebration and is something elderly Vietnamese folks look forward to.

Penn State York also canceled all Lunar New Year on-campus activities and shifted them online.

Worldwide, many cities, including Hong Kong, Melbourne and New York City, canceled parades, festivals and fireworks displays that typically draw large crowds amid COVID-19 concerns.

Huynh said her family almost always spends Lunar New Year with her maternal relatives, who live in Fairfax, Virginia, where there's a bigger Asian population and numerous Tết festivals that have dragon dances. 

About 1.5% of York County's roughly 450,000 residents identify as Asian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

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"We don't have anything huge like that (in York), and it is because of a smaller Asian population," Huynh said. "But also I find that especially the Vietnamese culture here is very much about hustling."

Vietnamese people in York County, for example, are more invested in working and providing for their families than organizing a community festival said Huynh. 

"Work now, play later, I think is a very strong Vietnamese mindset here in York," she said.

Sinh Huynh, left, looks on as his daughter Victoria Huynh, 18, prepares the table as their family celebrates the Lunar New Year at their home in Manchester Township, Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Huynh wore a solid red áo dài Friday, which is considered a lucky color in Vietnamese culture. Her mother wore a flowered áo dài, which is a more popular design among her parents' generation.

The family set the table and sat down to feast on their hard work. The spread consisted  of Vietnamese classics such as “thịt kho tàu” — braised pork belly with hardboiled eggs — “bánh hỏi” — rice vermicelli woven into intricate bundles and often topped with chopped scallions or garlic chives sautéed in oil — and "nước mắm” — a fermented fish dipping sauce and a staple in Vietnam.

While Huynh’s parents, who settled in York County in the 1990s, loved the sauce, she and her 13-year-old sister, both born and raised here, said it's an acquired taste for them.

Huynh's family also decorated their living room mantle with a variety of fruits and an assortment of Asian sweets and snacks as an offering to their ancestors. This is meant to pay respect and also pray to them for a safe year with good luck. Huynh said this is another important tradition that makes the Lunar New Year unique.

A mantle space is decorated by the Huynh family in celebration of the Lunar New Year  in Manchester Township, Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Despite not being able to physically see her relatives on such an important holiday, Huynh said, there's still a silver lining. Her father had called friends and family Friday morning.

"It still feels weird not seeing everyone face to face — not giving out red envelopes or hugging each other or going out and watching the firecrackers," Huynh said. "But it's still nice that we have technology to be able to even wish each other happy new year."