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Ushering in the Year of the Pig

Lunar New Year celebrations bring together Asian cultures, area residents.

Although the ball in Times Square has long since dropped, Fairfax County residents are gearing up for a different New Year's celebration — the Lunar New Year, also known as the Chinese New Year. Celebrated in coordination with the coming of a calendar year's first new moon, which appears Sunday, Feb. 18, Asian cultures around the world will usher in the "Year of the Golden Pig," a Chinese zodiac that occurs every 40 years and is aligned with the element, gold.

SOME COMMUNITIES have already begun celebrating this upcoming event. This past weekend, George Mason University, cosponsored with the New World Bilingual Institute, hosted the annual Lunar New Year Celebration which featured an array of cultural attributes including martial arts, vocal and dance performances and even cooking demonstrations.

"These kinds of celebrations always draw a lot of attendance from students and faculty," said Dr. Shaoxian Yu, an assistant director at the Office of Diversity Programs and Services at George Mason University. "They want to come together and celebrate."

Performers provided entertainment such as Kung Fu, children's performances, Traditional Chinese Dance, Ballet, Hawaiian Dances, International Break Dancing and, the highlight of the show, the Lion Dance — a traditional ritual dance that ushers in the new year.

Such area festivities attract a multiplicity of cultural backgrounds. WenBo Su, an emcee at the event, came to the U.S. when he was in the third grade. He holds an optimistic view of the Lunar New Year celebrations in the area.

"Events like this help people understand each other on a personal level," he said. "It's a good way to bring people together from various cultures."

A newcomer to Lunar New Year, Sheri Mercer said she enjoyed the performances.

"This is my first time at a Chinese New Year Celebration," said Mercer. "I've learned how families from the youngest to the grandparents are here to share the New Year together."

A main attraction of Lunar New Year is the reunion dinner of Chinese foods and delicacies. Symbolism can be found in all of the various traditional foods served, which seeks to bring good luck to families. Foods have different meanings, according to Hank Chao, who is president of the Hai Hua Community Center, a nonprofit organization which promotes Asian culture within mainstream America. Dumplings, for example, are usually one of the main dishes found at Lunar New Year celebrations and are believed to bring prosperity and wealth due to its shape, which is similar to ancient Chinese money. A famous dessert called "yuan-xiao" comprises of sticky rice with filling inside, representing perfection and family togetherness. "Nian-gao" is another popular food that means that every year, one will move up. "Nian" means "year," and "gao" means "higher," altogether signifying promotion and prosperity each year. Another interesting dish is fish, which is believed to bring good luck if there are leftovers. This practice stems from the Chinese expression "May there be fish every year," which sounds like "may there be extra goodness every year." In addition, red pockets of money, known as "lucky money," are distributed and given out in even numbers to bring good luck to the recipient.

ANOTHER EVENT planned in coordination with the new moon, the Fourth Annual Lunar New Year Celebration, will be held at Fair Oaks Mall, Saturday Feb. 17 and Sunday, Feb. 18, and is regarded as one of the biggest Lunar New Year events in Northern Virginia. In the past, the celebration has gathered crowds to watch colorful and lively performances.

"We invite everyone to bring the whole family for a fun-filled weekend of cultural education and amazing entertainment by multiple Asian countries," said Hank Chao.

This year's event features performances spanning 10 different countries. Cultures represented include Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Indian, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Malaysian, Middle Eastern, Taiwanese and Vietnamese. Miss Asia will also make a special appearance at the celebration.

"Since we all live together here, I think it's important that people of different cultures mutually understand each other's backgrounds," said Stella Choi, the program coordinator for the festival and dance teacher with the Fairfax Chinese Dance Troupe, a group that will perform. "Mutual sharing and understanding help us live in harmony in a better way."

Young children may find amusement in various activities such as drawing contests at the festival. Display and activity tables will be set up for Chinese arts and crafts, Chinese medicine, face painting, Chinese brush painting and calligraphy.

BUT AS CHAO remarked, the event not only educates area residents about cultures in Asia, but also plays an important role in reconnecting those removed from the geographic area to the culture of their ancestors.

"Attendees have continued to enjoy this celebration over the past few years," said Chao. "People who went through the Cultural Revolution miss the old traditions [of celebrating Chinese New Year]. The celebration helps second-generation Asian children who grew up here in America connect with Asian culture. We are also educating children of the next generation."