Celebrating Chinese connections

New Year’s Day parties showcase culture, traditions
Friday, January 27, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:18 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008

Phil Wood describes his first experience with the Mid-Missouri Chinese Association’s Chinese New Year celebration two years ago as “a little overwhelming.”

“There are all these things going on, and you have no idea what’s happening,” said Wood, a professor of psychology at MU. “Everything is in Chinese.”

But the annual celebration is important to Wood and his wife, Mary Ellen Degnan. About five years ago, the couple adopted a son, Justin, and brought him to the U.S. from Harbin, China. Justin was just 13 months old at the time, but, from the beginning, Wood and Degnan wanted their son to be familiar with the language and the traditions of his native culture.

“You have to educate not only for the child you have, but for the life situations they are going to have,” Wood said.

Two years ago, Wood and his family joined the Mid-Missouri Chinese Association, an organization of Chinese Americans and people who are interested in Chinese culture. They began going to the association’s New Year celebration and dragon boat shows to learn more about Chinese culture.

“Going to the celebration is a hoot because it’s kind of a Chinese thing to have a bunch of things going on at once,” Wood said. “Everyone is reconnecting with each other ... there is music and people setting up in one area and a television program on a big screen in another corner. ... It’s kind of overstimulating.”

The Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, begins Sunday and is traditionally a 15-day celebration commemorating the beginning of the new year, according to the Chinese lunar calendar. It is the biggest celebration in China and is even celebrated by other countries, such as Korea and Thailand. Here in America, most Chinese Americans cannot take 15 days off of work, so celebrations are generally limited to one or two evenings.

“After the celebration, people expect the spring to come,” said Shaoming Zou, the president of the association. “A new year, a new start will come.”

Wood said there are so many adopted Chinese children and their families in Columbia that, in 2004, a mid-Missouri chapter of Families with Children from China, which will host its own New Year celebration Feb. 4 in Jefferson City, was started.

“The Chinese culture is important to these kids, and their parents hope they can learn more about China,” Wei Du, the president of FCC at MU, said.

Michael Urban, MU assistant professor of geography, plans to give his 3-year-old daughter, Grace, a real Chinese New Year. Urban, who adopted Grace in 2003, said it is very important for him that he exposes Grace to Chinese culture. He and his wife, Kerri, have tried their best to connect Grace to the Chinese community, and the Chinese New Year is one of the best opportunities to do that, he said .

“That is part of who she is, part of her background,” Urban said.

Wood said his son has always sensed that he is from a different culture than his parents. When Justin was 2 years old, Wood recalls, his son approached him and asked, “‘Dad, how do you do that, with your eyes? You always walk around as if you are surprised.’”

Being a part of groups such as the FCC or the Mid-Missouri Chinese Association helps not only the kids learn about Chinese culture, but also the parents.

Wood said the New Year celebration has helped familiarize him to different styles of dress and ways of acting. “During the (Chinese New Year) celebration there are men wearing blue silk outfits,” Wood said. “I’m from Iowa, and I’m like, it’s beautiful, but it looks like pajamas.”

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