Mike Koozmin/The S.F. ExaminerCarol Chen stands in front of her North Beach home holding red envelopes she plans to give out to friends during the Chinese New Year celebration.

Chinese New Year: Celebrating in a new country

Feb. 19 will be the first Chinese New Year for Carol Chen and her family in the United States. She, her husband and 9-year-old son immigrated to San Francisco from the Guangdong province in China in early December, bringing with them the desire to carry on their traditions for the most important celebration of the year.

Though only in The City for a couple of months, Chen, 30, believes she can find everything she needs in Chinatown.

As her family did in China, Chen will wake up her mother and seven other family members living in their new North Beach home at 8 a.m. on Chinese New Year’s Eve, which involves more customs than Chinese New Year’s Day.

“There are really so many things to do,” Chen said in Cantonese. “Everyone is busy for the whole day.”

By 9 a.m., the entire family will head to a local Chinatown spot for yum cha, a southern Chinese-style morning or afternoon tea with small dim sum dishes. Around noon, Chen plans to accompany her mother to buy meat and vegetables to prepare their large family dinner.

From what Chen has seen, Chinatown will have all, if not most of the ingredients she used in her home country.

“All I need is here,” she said. “We definitely have to buy chicken. My mother-in-law always tells me it’s for good luck and we also offer it to the gods for good business in the new year.”

Chen’s mother spends the afternoon washing the meat and produce and cooking it. Meanwhile, family members take turns to shower so they are “gong gong tzeng tzeng,” which is Cantonese for “squeaky clean,” on New Year’s Day.

Anyone needing a haircut gets it on New Year’s Eve, because it’s bad luck to do it on New Year’s Day.

Before the large family dinner around 7 p.m., it’s important to “bai sun,” or offer food and pray to the gods. After the meal, Chen and her family go out to buy oranges and flowers symbolizing prosperity, and married members give younger, single kin “lai see,” or red envelopes with money.

“I would prefer to celebrate Chinese New Year in China because we are from there. I just came here and am still getting used to it,” Chen admitted. “China has more things to do, and in China, seniors don’t need to work on Chinese New Year Eve.”

New Year’s Day also begins with yum cha, but the rest of the day is spent more with close family and friends. Chen’s friends so far are only the people she has gotten to know when she drops off and picks up her son at the Chinese Education Center in Chinatown, but she has lai see prepared for them as well.

Then Chen plans to take time to get to know her new neighborhood.

“My kids don’t have many friends here yet, so I think this New Year’s I need to bring them to more parks to play,” she said.

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