Guest Writer Choon Young Tan discusses the cultural significance of Lunar New Year for ESEA people and the complications LGBTQ+ people face while celebrating it.
Lunar New Year is celebrated by 2 billion people globally and for many people of ESEA (East and Southeast Asian) heritage, it is the biggest cultural celebration in their calendar. Known by many names, including Chinese New Year or Spring Festival in the People’s Republic of China, Tét in Vietnam, Seollal in North and South Korea, Tsagaan Sar in Mongolia, and Losar in Tibet, the diversity of Lunar New Year across Asia and the world is often overlooked and homogenised.
Across the many countries and communities that observe Lunar New Year, both similarities and differences are abundant, ranging across cultural attire, taboos and superstitions, food, the Zodiac cycle and more.
In Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, wearing red and yellow or gold is popular as they are the most fortuitous colours - symbols of wealth and luck - while black and white are the most unlucky, signifying death and the mourning.
Giving money to children by elders and married children giving to their elders is a tradition in most cultures, often in red envelopes in Chinese and Vietnamese culture or money pouches in Korean.
Worshipping and paying respects to ancestors as well as cleaning the house and warding off evil spirits prior to the first day is a common activity across all Lunar New Year celebrations.
The New Year is rooted in the appreciation of or desire for a number of things: family, good fortune, and positivity; everything links back to them, so this time of year can be tough for many who are estranged from their family and cultural background, especially those who are part of the LGBTQ+ community - whether they are out or not. Despite a long history of homosexuality, bisexuality and transness existing in East and Southeast Asian art, literature and legends, being LGBTQ/queer is still often considered a taboo subject.
This then poses the dilemma for some: how do you celebrate Lunar New Year or overcome the barriers you may face when seeing family during this auspicious festival? Especially, when in Chinese culture for example, arguing with people at the beginning of the New Year is believed to bring bad luck and troubled relationships for a whole year.
For many people, celebrating with their families can be fraught with tension and so spending the holidays without them has become their norm. I spoke to a few LGBTQ+ people who celebrate Lunar New Year about their experiences and they kindly lent their stories - some anonymously - for this piece.
My friends Siu Kee and Jensen, who both identify as British-born Chinese and gay, are out to some immediate and extended members of their family. However, both still do not feel fully accepted by their parents, which has led to feeling disconnected from their sense of “family” and thus rarely spending time with them during Lunar New Year.
“These last couple of years I have celebrated LNY over a meal or attending some event,” Jensen says, “in the past my social circles didn't really celebrate it but I have found more friends who appreciate LNY and so I have felt more of an incentive to do something for it.” He added that not being fully accepted by his family after coming out has, “stained my image of what family is, it can be difficult to believe that family is everything when they do not fully accept and support you.”
Siu Kee also didn’t celebrate the festival as much growing up as his parents ran a Chinese takeaway and to this day finds it hard to celebrate it properly due to being unable to take time off so close after Christmas and New Year. But when celebrating he’d rather spend the holidays with those that are comfortable with who he is and wish him good luck and fortune for the life that he has chosen. On seeing family and the topic of him being gay, Siu Kee says “it quite simply doesn’t get addressed or discussed” whether he is single or dating.
While concrete statistics don’t currently exist, it is widely acknowledged that LGBTQ people from non-White backgrounds are disproportionately affected by some degree of familial rejection in relation to their sexuality or gender identity. A study by HRC Foundation found that just 19% of Asian American and Pacific Islander LGBTQ youth said they could “definitely” be themselves at home. And a simple Google search about the ostracisation and even violence people of Asian heritage face - both in and out of Asia itself and at the hands of their own family - reveals shocking and sad stories.
Another person who spoke with me, who only wishes to be known as K, is a lesbian originally from South Korea and has lived in the UK since 2017 but since the pandemic has only returned home once and not during Seollal. She came to the UK for university and has since explored and come to terms with her sexuality, but believes her conservative parents would not approve due to a gay cousin whom they and other family have previously shown disdain for.
“I’ve managed to use the pandemic as an excuse for not going back for three years, except for one holiday I combined with my grandma’s funeral. I really wanted to tell my parents then, but I couldn’t,” she told me. She says when they ask whether she has a boyfriend she tells them she is too busy with work..
A non-binary Vietnamese person who does not wish to be named, also told me their story. They still live with family and therefore coming out and being themselves is difficult. “I mostly love celebrating Tét as we have a big extended family living in the same city or nearby, but I do sometimes get comments from older relatives about my androgynous appearance which can be a little uncomfortable and overwhelming,” they tell me. “In the last couple of years this has led me to grow my hair out longer before the New Year and dress slightly more feminine just for those occasions.”
These are just a handful of experiences by some of the queer ESEA community but hopefully they illustrate the pressures and push and pull many queer people go through when juggling both parts of themselves.
3 Tips for LGBTQ+ People Celebrating Lunar New Year:
Celebrate with your friends and other people who are close to you - create a safe space you feel comfortable in. Remember that chosen family can be just as important as biological family. If you are celebrating with biological family, don’t feel afraid to step away for your own psychological safety, even if you can’t say the reason why.
You can cleverly deflect questions and statements relating to your love life or the way you look or behave - succeeding in work is often as important to family as being married with children, so a lot of people find this an effective topic to move conversation along. If you have an active ally in your family, ask them for support.
Do and wear what feels most comfortable and safe for you in family environments - some queer ESEAs have often felt at odds with both sides of their identities, with a desire to express themselves but not pull too far away from traditions or family expectations. If you can’t wear what you want around your biological family, why not create an opportunity with your chosen family where you can wear it?
If you’re celebrating Lunar New Year, we hope you have a prosperous, healthy and above all, safe and happy one!
Choon Young Tan (he/him)
Choon is a wearer of many hats. From being an accomplished marketing professional and versatile writer with more than 15 years experience in those fields to a workplace culture specialist with a deep passion for ED&I (equity, diversity and inclusion), he is always striving to make a difference in the world.
If you’re an organisation wanting to celebrate the diversity of Lunar New Year at work, you can contact Tan here.
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