Lunar New Year Celebrations Across Asian Student Communities at HBS

Deborah Tan, Contributor
Sangyun Lee, Contributor
Nga Nguy, Contributor

Singapore, by Deborah Tan (MBA ’21)

I miss Singapore most during Lunar New Year (LNY). Old Chinese songs warble from loudspeakers in wet markets, homes are alive with people visiting kin, and the color is red everywhere—fresh outfits, red packets, calligraphy signs adorning doorways. It feels like Thanksgiving and Christmas combined but better, because you get money from all your relatives and from winning at mahjong (a tile-based game). 

The origin of Lunar New Year in Singapore goes something like this—villagers in China were plagued by the beast Nian, which ate crops and people. Someone figured out that Nian was scared of loud noises and the color red, so the villagers put up red lanterns and scrolls and produced loud banging noises to scare the beast away. 

My mother still faithfully reminds me of the Singaporean traditions she knows: “Clean your home before the first day, so you don’t sweep away your fortune. Cut your hair and nails before the 15 days leading to LNY, so you don’t cut off your prosperity and wealth. Wear red, to scare away the spirits of bad fortune.” Her annual texts of traditional admonishments amuse me but also makes me feel a little more Chinese and brings me a little closer to home. 

In the spirit of tradition, the first year Singaporeans gathered together to eat and do a ‘lo hei’ toss (a mix of food ingredients, each symbolizing a different kind of fortune) to bring ourselves fortune and prosperity in this next year. My Singaporean family and the wider South East Asian group have also helped me to feel closer to home in a place that can feel overwhelming at times. Xing Nian Kuai Le, Wan Shi Ru Yi, Shen Ti Jian Kang and Gong Xi Fa Cai to you and yours for this new year and more! 

South Korea, by Sangyun Lee (MBA ’20)

설날 (Seollal) is the first day of the Korean lunar calendar. 설 (Seol) means ‘year’ or ‘new’ and 날 (lal) means ‘day’ in Korean, so collectively Seollal means a new day of a new year. The celebration usually lasts three days—the day before Seollal, Seollal itself, and the day after Seollal. Seollal is one of the most important and special traditional holidays in Korea as it symbolizes more than just the beginning of a new year. During this time, many Koreans visit their family, perform ancestral rites (charye), wear traditional attire (hanbok), eat traditional food, and play folk games. In Korea, preparation for Seollal begins several days before the three-day holiday; ritual food is prepared in advance and people purchase gifts for their parents and relatives.

Traditionally, families travel from all around Korea to the house of their oldest male relative to pay their homage to both ancestors and elders. On Seollal, people start the day by performing the ritual of ancestor worship. After the ceremony, people do other family-oriented activities, such as playing folk games, eating ritual food together and doing a formal bow, Sebae—the younger generation bow to their elders, wish a happy new year and receive words of blessing for a new year in return often along with small gifts of money. This is the part that students and children enjoy the most about Seollal since they can make some pocket money, or ‘sebaetdon.’

The very typical dish on Seollal is rice cake soup (ddeokguk) with sliced rice cakes, minced beef, egg, and vegetables. Since the broth of ddeokguk is clear and white, people believe that eating deeokguk allows you to wash out impurities from the last year in order to start off a new year with a clean mind and body. Koreans eat ddeokguk at the beginning of every new year; therefore, consuming a bowl of ddeokguk symbolizes getting older by one year. Young children love to eat m ore bowls of ddeokguk, thinking they can get older by a couple more years. Unfortunately, for them, additional bowls do not count.

At HBS, a group of Korean students gathered together at the oldest Korean classmate’s place and ate traditional Korean dishes such as rice cake soup, pancakes, meat and seafood fries. After the dinner, we shared words of blessing for the new (academic) year and played ‘yunnori,’ one of the most popular folk board games, and a traditional board game. The prize for the winning team was to relax, while the losing team had to do all the cleaning.  

Vietnam, by Nga Nguy (MBA ’21) 

Lunar New Year or ‘Tết’ in Vietnam is celebrated around the same time with Lunar New Year in several other countries in Asia, on the first day of the lunar calendar year. In Vietnam, while the regular (solar) calendar is used for daily life, the lunar calendar still plays an important role in cultural activities. Tết is also the time of the year when we reflect on what has been accomplished and also look ahead to new opportunities, new fortune, new challenges that the coming year will bring. 

The festival is also the time we dedicate to our families, friends, and people that matter most in our lives. To allow people to travel back to their hometowns and fully enjoy the celebrations, the government grants two weeks of public holidays nationwide. 

Tết officially kicks off on Day 23 of the twelfth lunar month, with a ceremony called ‘Ông Công Ông Táo’ (Kitchen God). In Vietnam, we believe that there is a Kitchen God, who brings prosperity, watches over each family and acts as the emissary between the family and the Gods in heaven. This God resides in the kitchen because it symbolizes a place of prosperity where the family gathers for a meal. It is also the busiest place in the house, so the Kitchen God is well acquainted with all that happened during the year to the family. On Day 23 of the twelfth lunar month, the Kitchen God returns to heaven to update the Gods about the family and that is when the new year preparation period ‘officially’ begins. Vietnamese people believe that upon his return, he will bring along many fortunes from heaven and therefore bring prosperity and luck to the family in the coming year. 

In the two weeks that lead up to the New Year Eve, every street corner turns into a flower market, Tết music is played everywhere and supermarkets are very crowded. Families often start their preparation early so they pour into streets to stock up food for the large family dinners and purchase flowers that bloom in spring to decorate their homes. What Thanksgiving holiday feels like to the American people, Tết holiday means the same to Vietnamese people. In the first 3 to 5 days of Tết (of the 1st lunar month), people gather with extended families, visit teachers, mentors, and friends, and enjoy a lot of great food. 

This year, Tết came a bit earlier (the last 2 days of winter break), and many of Vietnamese HBS students were back in Vietnam. This gave us an opportunity to meet up in Vietnam and celebrate over a tasty dinner. Once we returned to campus, we gathered with friends from other Asian countries, including Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea and many more,  to celebrate the Lunar New Year with support and help of the Asian-American Business Association (AABA). 

Deb Tan (MBA ’21) is Singaporean and a proud member of Section J. She has spent the last 10 years studying and working in the United States. She is an avid consumer of Netflix sci-fi shows, fantasy dystopian novels, and most importantly, pizza.

Sangyun Lee (MBA ’20) is from South Korea and a proud member of Section B and Section K. Prior to HBS, he worked at McKinsey & Company and Dell and he will switch to private equity investment after graduation.

Nga Nguy (MBA ’21) is a proud member of the Dynasty family. She loves ordering bubble tea for her sectionmates, dressing up as a cup of bubble tea for Halloween, and catering bubble tea for various Asian American Business Association club events that she hosts or helps organize around campus.