It's the year of the tiger: How a billion people celebrate the Lunar New Year

On today's episode of the 5 Things podcast:

It's the year of the tiger in the Lunar New Year. Earlier this week people celebrated with dancing, colorful costumes and drums. For many it's a new idea, but for billions it's a way to celebrate their culture. USA Today’s Eve Chen and Jordan Mendoza discuss how the holiday is celebrated, its importance, and why it endures. We’ll also get a few hints about what Asian Americans are going through today. For more on the Lunar New Year click here. For more on the year of the Tiger click here. Catch up with James Brown on twitter by clicking here, Eve Chen by clicking here and Jordan Mendoza by clicking here.

Podcasts: True crime, in-depth interviews and more USA TODAY podcasts right here.

Hit play on the player above to hear the podcast and follow along with the transcript below. This transcript was automatically generated, and then edited for clarity in its current form. There may be some differences between the audio and the text.

James Brown: Hi. I'm James Brown and welcome to Five Things. Thanks for joining me. On Sundays, we do things a bit differently, focusing on one topic instead of five. In this week, we're throwing a party. That's the sound of New York City's Chinatown from just a few days ago. The thousands there are celebrating the Lunar New Year. There's dancing, colorful costumes, and of course drums. For me, it's a pretty new idea. I thought it was just one day.

But for about a billion people around the world, the celebrations go on and take different forms and have different meanings. This year is the year of the tiger, and as Stephen Tin of Better Chinatown's Society USA told the associated press

Steven Tin: The tiger represents energy. Okay? Besides the dragon, the tiger is one of the strongest year health wise for the [inaudible 00:01:05]. So hopefully, we have the tiger help us get rid of the pandemic.

James Brown: In this episode, USA Today's Eve Chen and Jordan Mendoza will teach me a few things about this holiday, its importance, and why it endures. We'll also get a few hints about what Asian Americans are going through today. First, we'll get the basics with Jordan Mendoza.

I've heard of the Year of the Rat. I've heard of the Year of the Pig, the Year of the Ox. As I understand, these different years, these different symbols, have different meanings?

Jordan Mendoza: So, there's a 12 year cycle of animals associated with the Lunar New Year. There's the rat, the ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. And so, these 12 year cycles ... So this year, 2022, is the Year of the Tiger. And using math, the last time that this happened was in 2010, and you go back every 12 years for the cycle to repeat and things like that.

So this year is the Year of the Tiger, and with each year that is associated with an animal, it kind of gives off a personality trait if you will, and it usually is indicative of if you were born in that year, then these character traits are probably going to be associated with you, or this is the year where these traits will be associated and this is what it means for you.

So the tiger, it's meant to be a sign of bravery. It's supposed to be a sign of courage and strength. People take it as a way to do something that is out of your comfort zone or do something that you wouldn't normally have done. And what's really cool about these symbols is they commonly associate them to things that are going on in today's world.

So if you look back at last year, last year was the Year of the Ox, and the Year of the Ox is somewhat similar to a tiger where it's being diligent, being determined, and things like that. And a lot of people associated that with the arrival of COVID vaccines. A pandemic has been affecting this world in such a negative way, and COVID vaccines offered a way of hope. And so, they associated that with the Year of the Ox, whereas this year, if you're looking at the Year of the Tiger with bravery, courage, and strength, some people can interpret it as we are using this year to get ourselves out of the pandemic.

Now, there's no saying that the pandemic is going to end this year, obviously, but people use it as a symbol like we are almost at the end of this. We are almost at the finish line and we are going to use the strength of the tiger and the year of the tiger to get us out of these hard times.

James Brown: I'm getting a bit of an astrology vibe.

Jordan Mendoza: Yeah. So they are zodiac signs. That's what it is. And these signs, they come from tales. They come from old very ancient Chinese tales of what they're associated with.

James Brown: For those who may not know, how different are lunar year celebrations than other new year celebrations?

Jordan Mendoza: So when you think of New Year's, like with our typical calendar with December 31st and January 1st, you picture a big party the night of December 31st and waiting until midnight, and then there's a huge thing at midnight, and then you party for the rest of the night, and you go to sleep. The next day is January 1st. Then normal life kind of carries on, right?

With Lunar New Year, it's much more than just one night and one day or even two days. Depending on where you're at in the world or your background, it's a multi day event. It's something that you reserve time for. I know in China, this is a 15 day celebration, so it really is something that people recognize. And when they say it's 15 days of celebration, they really mean it by it's 15 days of celebration in honor and to bringing in the new lunar year.

James Brown: 15 days. I'm just trying to imagine anything I celebrate over a two week period. Do you know any more about how that 15 day celebration goes down?

Jordan Mendoza: Yeah. So, this holiday, it's really centered around family. It's really centered around seeing your loved ones, seeing the ones that you're close to, and this is really a time where a lot of people will congregate in one house together and they'll have a grand feast, a grand dinner if you will, and they just sit there, and they'll enjoy each other's company and just spend time together.

And then perhaps the next day, you'll do it at someone else's house or you'll do it somewhere else. And so, this is really a time where a lot of people reserve the chance to see each other. So if you live super far away and your work gets in the way and life gets in the way to where you can't see your family members all the time, this is the one time of year where you really make the effort to go see people and come together as one and ring in a new year where you try to get out the bad spirits of the past year and bad things that happened, and you do these traditions to give yourself a hopeful and optimistic new year.

James Brown: Well Jordan, thank you for your time. You've been generous.

Jordan Mendoza: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

James Brown: Now that we know that Lunar New Year celebrations are a time for family, food, and fun with a dash of travel and a sprinkle of hope, USA Today's Eve Chen tell us about her experience with the holiday and what she and [inaudible 00:06:13] Brad captured in a recent piece about Asian Americans.

One of the things that came to mind as I was researching this piece and even prior to researching this piece, I noticed that there was all sorts of acknowledgement of the Lunar New Year this time around that I hadn't seen in prior years. The President had a message. Where I live, our Mayor spoke up, as did our Governor.

I don't recall that. It's something that seemed pretty surprising. Is it surprising to you?

Eve Chen: I think there is usually some sort of statement around Lunar New Year from the President. I can't remember when that would have started, but I certainly remember there being some during the Obama administration. I don't know for sure when that would have started. Maybe it's been for decades. But as far as being widely recognized, I think after the last year and a half too of AAPI hate, I think people are more in tune a little bit to the Asian Americans within their own communities and wanting to acknowledge and support them and celebrate their heritage when it's something that's been attacked over the last pandemic.

And so, I think maybe that's more of an intentional effort by some people who may not have always said, "Happy Lunar New Year." But I think in recent years, I think it's been acknowledged by a number of people in recent years. I don't know if it's been as widely. I can't say if this year is more than last year or the year before that. But it does feel like there's quite a bit of visibility because of the past year of attacks.

James Brown: All right. So there's all of this sort of raw emotional outpouring AAPI, Asian American Pacific Islander, if I'm getting the acronym correct, hate, talk, actions. It becomes a huge thing, especially in the Spring of last year. It's quite possible that this could be sort of a ... What I'm noticing, if it's a real thing, I could be totally wrong. Right? It's sort of this waves crest, flapping on the shore of something that's big that happened already. It's like an after shock, for lack of a better term.

Eve Chen: I actually asked my colleague India, who I wrote the story with, if she recalled whether or not this was the first Lunar New Year since the attacks on our community, on the Asian American community, because she had covered it last year as well when there had been a lot of violence. It turns out the attacks actually happened in the lead up to last Lunar New Year.

So, this isn't the first one, but it's the first one since it really blew up. So they were happening last year. They were starting to happen, but they continued, as we know, all the way through May, and then beyond that. There have been instances all year long. There continue to be incidents. But the most high profile ones were in last Spring.

So this is the first Lunar New Year since it kind of blew up as ... I don't want to say a movement. Stop AAPI Hate is a movement, but I don't want to call AAPI hate a movement. I think that prejudice and stereotypes and discrimination have been part of the treatment of Asian Americans since they first arrived on these shores. So not to say everyone by any means, but there was a history of that, right? There's a documented history. The first exclusion act against immigrants was against people from China.

And so, it's not like AAPI hate is necessarily new, but this is the first Lunar New Year since there were so many incidents concentrated last year, and so I think that may be why there are more people kind of standing up and celebrating. Some of the people that I spoke to for my story are Asian American, but not necessarily from communities or heritages that would celebrate Lunar New Year before.

So like for instance, Filipinos don't celebrate Lunar New Year. Japanese people don't celebrate Lunar New Year. Their new year is just like everyone else's new year on January 1st. They don't follow the lunar calendar. However, some of them really saw Lunar New Year as a time for the larger Asian American community to coalesce and celebrate our heritage.

So, Lunar New Year is celebrated by the Chinese culture. It's celebrated in Korea. It's celebrated in Vietnam, Singapore, and several other countries in Asia, of course, by the diaspora. But I think regardless of where your or anyone's individual family may be from, I think a lot of people are able to see the holiday as a cultural one to just take pride in, not necessarily that they celebrate Lunar New Year themselves, but it's just an opportunity for them to celebrate their heritage loudly and proudly as one of the women I spoke to said.

James Brown: When it comes to your story, are there elements of it that you would like to hammer home? Things that you want to make sure that the reader does not miss?

Eve Chen: So we spoke to a variety of Asian Americans for this story. The one through line for them is, yes, it's been a hard year. This last year was very hard emotionally, mentally, for some people, physically. I spoke to a woman whose mother was punched while grocery shopping near Chinatown in New York. It's been a hard year. And so, they're looking toward this new year as a new chapter, hopefully, but also a time to really take pride in who they are as Asian Americans, both Asian and American.

They all expressed resilience. They all expressed belonging, that they, like all of us, deserve to be here and take pride in their culture and they share it with the world through Lunar New Year.

James Brown: Man, it's got to be a brutal moment to just be attacked for who you are.

Eve Chen: One of the women I spoke with, she came out of retirement as a doctor. She'd retired as a doctor, but she specialized in end of life care. And so when COVID began, that first wave of COVID in New York, she came out of retirement to volunteer as a doctor and she would take the subway and she would be scared riding the subway to go help save other people's lives or help people as a physician. She'd be scared for her own life possibly being attacked on the subway, but she did it anyways, and she did it scared, but she did it.

James Brown: Wow. And I'm glad she did because obviously we need as many healthcare professionals as we can get our hands on. So, where can our listeners find you online and perhaps in social media?

Eve Chen: My Twitter handle is @chenwilliams. That's the best place to find me on social media. Otherwise, you'll find me in USA Today.

James Brown: If you like the show, write us a review on Apple Podcasts of wherever you're listening and do me a favor. Share it with a friend. Let us know what you think on social media at USA Today, and you can find me at James Brown TV. Thanks to Alexis [Davies 00:13:32] for editing this episode and to Jordan and Eve for joining me. Taylor Wilson will be back tomorrow morning with Five Things You Need to Know for Monday. For all of us at USA Today, thanks for listening. I'm James Brown, and as always, be well.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How a billion people celebrate the Lunar New Year: 5 Things podcast