Lunar New Year, which usually comes between late January and mid-February, falls on Thursday this year. The East Asian holiday brings a festive atmosphere to Milpitas, thanks to the city's Chinese and Vietnamese population. There are at least five Chinese customs of Lunar New Year you may come across in Milpitas.
1. Fish and/or dumplings for New Year's Eve dinner: If you shop at a , , or Marina supermarket this week, notice that the fish section is busy with customers. This is because the word fish sounds the same as the word surplus in Mandarin (both sound like yu). The Chinese traditionally have fish for dinner on New Year's Eve and purposefully not finish it so there will be a surplus for the new year. The Northern Chinese will also eat dumplings, which are made in the same shape as gold nuggets in ancient China were, as a symbol for increasing wealth in the new year.
2. New Year's cake: You may have seen piles of round boxes near the cash registers at the Asian markets. Inside the round boxes are rice cakes, made of ground glutinous rice and some sweet stuffing. In case you are curious to try one, don't eat it raw, or you may get a stomach ache!
The cake is supposed to be steamed, or sliced, breaded with flour and fried. Besides the sweet rice cake, there is another kind of rice cake that comes without sweet stuffing and is sold pre-sliced to be used like noodles for savory dishes.
While savory rice cake dishes are available all year round, the Chinese only have sweet rice cakes for dessert during Lunar New Year. Both kinds of rice cakes are called nian gao in Mandarin, which means "new year's cake" and sounds the same as "new year's height." The height refers to children's growth as well as adults' career advancement.
3. House visits with gifts: Around the piles of New Year's cakes at local Asian markets, there are many fancy boxes of candies, cookies and other gift items on display this week. These are for customers to purchase to give to their family members and friends.
Chinese are culturally obligated to take gifts when they visit elder family members and friends during the first 15 days of the lunar year. Although many Chinese-Americans no longer keep this custom with their busy lives in the United States, some of them, especially older ones, still follow the tradition.
4. Money in red envelopes for children: Starting Lunar New Year's Eve through the 15th day of the new lunar year, children are supposed to say, "Happy New Year!" to every adult they see, and the adults must give money in a red envelope for each child in return.
The money is only meant to symbolize good fortune for the coming year. It doesn't have to be much. If you feel like giving your neighbors' children $1 each during Lunar New Year for fun, red envelopes are for sale at local Asian markets, and the cost is minimal.
5. New Year's couplets: During the 15-day celebration of Lunar New Year's, Chinese households have two strips of red paper with auspicious words written on them posted on both sides of the door, sometimes on a screen indoors, too.
The two phrases or sentences on the two strips are in parallel structure to form a couplet, which represents the best wishes for the coming year. Although very few in the U.S. keep the custom to decorate their doors with New Year's couplets, such couplets are often seen at some restaurants and community events around Lunar New Year.