As the Year of the Dragon commenced last week with the onset of the Lunar New Year, UC Santa Barbara students reflected on how they celebrated the holiday away from home.

For many students, Lunar New Year consists of a shared meal with loved ones. Shihuan Cheng / Daily Nexus

Lunar New Year marks the beginning of the new year, according to the lunar calendar, and is celebrated predominantly across Asian cultures through a variety of traditions. 

Third-year computer science student Sophia Tran, the cultural education chair of the Vietnamese Student Association (VSA), engages in Vietnamese culture on campus through the club. Its annual “Tết Week” leading up to the new year consisted of traditional gambling games, karaoke night and spring roll-making this year.

“Everyone comes from different backgrounds when we come to college and it’s very much away from home, so VSA is there to be a community for people where it’s a home away from home,” Tran said. “In hosting these events, it’s bringing back our culture from what we grew up with. Bringing it and sharing it with our newfound friends.”

Tran said that at home, Lunar New Year would bring her family together for a potluck with traditional Vietnamese foods such as fruit cocktail “chè thái” and rice cake “bánh tét.” Red envelopes would then be presented and a gambling game would commence. 

“We basically do a feast and then the elders will give red envelopes to the younger children,” Tran said. “Then we do the gambling game … with our New Year’s money.”

Since leaving home for college, Tran has found different ways to celebrate each year. While she said her parents visited for the holiday last year, Tran celebrated by helping out with Tết Week before heading to a Tết festival in Southern California.

“I’m going to Orange County with my friends,” Tran said. “There’s an organization of VSAs around Southern California, and every year they do this festival called Tết Festival.”

People find different ways to celebrate from college, Tran said, though many end up returning home for the weekend.

“I’ve talked to my other friends about what they do for Lunar New Year in college, and I’ve gotten mixed reviews,” Tran said. “Some of my friends will just go home, I’m always like ‘Oh my gosh, you’re going back home to the Bay for one weekend?’ … One of my friends said she doesn’t get the red envelopes unless she goes home … The cost-benefit for paying for the flight — it benefits her more. I thought that was really funny.”

For fourth-year art student Haoran Jiang, celebrating Lunar New Year at college meant gathering with his friends and cooking Chinese food, mirroring the family gathering he would have back home. 

“The atmosphere is not that great,” Jiang said. “Because in China we usually celebrate with our family, but my family’s not here.”

Fourth-year computer science student Steven Choi, President of the Korean Language Club also celebrated this year with traditional food.

“What my family and I would do, we would eat this food called tteokguk, which is sliced rice cake soup,” Choi said. “Basically, it’s a tradition you do every year if you eat it, it’s basically for good luck for the year and you gain an age. And, yeah, I don’t really get to eat the food that often so it’s pretty nice to feel like home.”

This year, Choi celebrated with the UCSB community by planning a Lunar New Year Social on Feb. 9 in the MultiCultural Center Lounge. Choi said that his club collaborated with Korean music and pop culture club Seoul’d Out to host the event and share Korean traditions for the new year.

“Most people these days, they’re probably interested in some form of Korean culture like K-pop or new Korean music, or Korean shows,” Choi said. “We want to dive a little bit deeper, show people the Korean traditions that date back a long time ago — what Koreans and other Asian cultures do on Lunar New Year.”

Whether at school or home, Choi said Lunar New Year is about family.

“To me, Korean Lunar New Year is just a period of time where you can spend with your family and close ones and eat tteokguk and maybe play some traditional Korean games,” Choi said. “Mostly just for being close with your family and loved ones.”

A version of this article appeared on p. 4 of the Feb. 15, 2024, print edition of the Daily Nexus.