August 14, 2022

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The celebrations can continue for up to two weeks, to accommodate what is usually the...

The celebrations can continue for up to two weeks, to accommodate what is usually the largest travel event for a country. Although it may not be earmarked as a national holiday outside of Asia, the rituals of food, ceremonial greetings and family gatherings play out globally.

But for adoptees, the holiday can be complicated: They may not partake in rituals handed down through generations. For many, traditions start with themselves, burnished by an alchemy of research, adaptation and a continuous revision of self-discovery.

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These four women in the D.C. area shared how they’ve forged ways to celebrate a holiday originating from their unknown histories.

‘I still feel like I’m in the middle’

Jada Bromberg, 18, Fairfax, Va.

On Feb. 1, the Brombergs kicked off the Year of the Tiger by decorating their house with lanterns and paper dragons hung from the ceilings.

Jada Bromberg, a senior at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, grew up in Northern Virginia but was born in Ruijin, a city in Jiangxi province in China. She was adopted when she was 13 months old by White, Jewish parents. Her brother, Gavin, is 2½ years older and was adopted from Cambodia; he’s a student at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

“It’s just hard as a Chinese adoptee to feel connected with the culture of China. Even now I still feel like I’m in the middle,” Bromberg said. “I don’t exactly fit in. I am, like, 100 percent Chinese, but I don’t always feel so connected to being Chinese, whereas I also don’t feel 100 percent American. It’s a confusing feeling.”

This year, Bromberg said, she “didn’t necessarily actually want to celebrate or not celebrate” Lunar New Year. But her father always makes a home-cooked meal to mark the occasion, and this time it was sesame chicken.

Bromberg also usually gets a gift from her parents — this year, she got a porcelain cat that waves, like the ones you see in Chinese restaurants. “That was so cute. I am a huge cat lover,” Bromberg said. In the past few years, her parents also started giving her red envelopes (hóngbāo) filled with money, a tradition to represent prosperity and luck in the new year.

On Saturday, she and her parents went to the mall at Tysons Corner Center, where the Asian American Chamber of Commerce hosted a celebration featuring traditional Chinese music and dance, as well as a Korean dance performance.

As someone who is passionate about music — Bromberg sings and plays piano and has been writing songs since she was 13 — her voice brightened as she talked about the big, colorful performances. But they contrast with her own music, which is mellow and soulful.

“When I sing, I forget everything else that is happening in the moment. I’m able to focus solely on the sounds and lyrics I project, which is very powerful,” she said. “At 13, songwriting became the main way I cope with my depression and anxiety. This includes my emotions and experiences as an adoptee.” One of her songs, “For the Unknown,” is “about what I imagine my experience may have been as an infant being separated from my birth mother,” she said.

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The recent festivities also felt a little different — with Gavin at college, Bromberg is sometimes aware she’s now “the only Asian in the whole house.”

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When she was deciding where to go to college this fall — she got into her first choice, Temple University in Philadelphia — a diverse student population became increasingly important, she said. Plus, her brother will be close by.

‘It was like this whole group of diverse Asian networking’

Lillian Witting, 24, Pentagon City, Va.

Lillian Witting’s Lunar New Year celebration has grown over the years, but one thing remains the same: dumplings.

This past Saturday, the 24-year-old hosted a dumpling-folding party with friends and fellow graduate students at George Washington University, where she’s completing a masters in public health.

For Witting, like so many others, the holiday’s locus is food. Growing up, her mother would take her to holiday festivals in Phoenix, where she learned about traditional Chinese food, costumes and dancing.

“The only exposure I did have was those big festivals,” Witting said. Her mother, who adopted Witting at 11 months from China and raised her as a single parent, would also cook frozen dumplings.

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During college at the University of Arizona in Tucson, she started celebrating the holiday away from home, mostly with non-Asian friends.

“I just invited a bunch of friends, made some dumpling filling, bought the wrappers. Then we sat around, chatted and folded,” she said. “It was really nice, because I felt like I didn’t have to explain or justify anything.”

After her move to D.C. in August 2020 for graduate school, she made Asian American friends through a Facebook group — and several attended her party Saturday, bringing food, snacks, games and activities from their traditions.

“It was like this whole group of diverse Asian networking,” she said. “They’ve really shown me a lot and like sharing their knowledge.”

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On Feb. 5, about 18 friends floated into her apartment to celebrate the holiday, also known as the Spring Festival in China. The dumpling folding (and eating) was the main event, but Witting also organized other activities, including decorating hóngbāo.

At Witting’s home, instead of the traditional cash, the currency was candy. After all, many of the guests are graduate students, she said, “and we don’t have a lot of money.” Her girlfriend, Deborah, is Chinese American and taught her about different sweets, so Witting gave out Chinese white rabbit and flower confectionery. A few of her Vietnamese friends brought traditional Lunar New Year foods, including bánh chưng, sticky rice filled with meat or vegetables and wrapped in banana leaves.

The Vietnamese traditions for the holiday there called Tết, in particular, have taken on more significance for Witting. In college, she bought a DNA test kit and discovered she is about one-third Vietnamese. She was born in Haikou in Hainan, China, which was part of what is now Vietnam.

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“I still view myself as Asian American,” she said, but “it’s been more exciting to ask around and learn more about Vietnamese culture.”

‘Trying to refigure my place in the world … is an ongoing process’

Leigha Basini, mid-40s, Northern Virginia

In general, Leigha Basini goes big on holidays.

Her husband is a Jewish immigrant from Belarus, and she was adopted from South Korea and grew up in Charlotte. So she celebrates the new year three times a year: There’s the Hebrew calendar’s Rosh Hashanah in September or October; then there’s Jan. 1; and, finally, Seollal, the Korean observance of the Lunar New Year, in January or February.

When Basini was adopted more than 40 years ago, her parents, who are White, were advised to raise her as if she was their biological child, she said. When she moved to the D.C. area about 10 years ago, she realized she lived near a large Korean community, as well as a large Korean adoptee community, for the first time: “I had known maybe a handful of Korean people in my life prior to that.”

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She started learning more about Korean culture a couple years after the move. “That’s when I really became more interested in Korea and what it means to be Korean,” she said.

Now, Basini frequents Korean grocery stores and restaurants and attends cultural events. She has also taken language classes at the Korean Cultural Center in D.C.

“I just did a lot of personal work on understanding adoption and grieving over what I had lost and trying to refigure my place in the world, which I think is an ongoing process,” she said.

A mother of two children — a 4-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son — Basini said she’s trying to instill in them a connection to her Korean background, mostly through food.

In South Korea, Seollal is spread over a few days to allow time to travel back to hometowns. On Feb. 1, Basini spent the day cooking traditional holiday dishes: japchae (sweet potato noodles stir-fried with vegetables and meat), bulgogi (marinated grilled beef), jeon (savory pancakes made with beef dipped in an egg batter and a kimchi pancake, the mix for which Basini bought from Costco), mandu (dumplings made with kimchi) and the Seollal staple tteokguk, a savory soup made with rice flour cakes, to symbolize good luck.

The dishes Basini prepared are labor-intensive — many of the ingredients are seasoned and cooked separately. What’s more, her son is allergic to sesame, and sesame oil is used in almost every Korean dish, so Basini made a duplicate menu for him without it. She said she took some time off work (she’s a director at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) and prepped over the weekend. Basini and her children wore hanbok, or traditional Korean clothing.

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Her husband’s family has also contributed to the Lunar New Year celebration over the years: Basini learned to make dumplings from her mother-in-law, who learned from a Chinese family she befriended at a community center for immigrants in Upstate New York in the 1980s.

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‘A way to connect to Chinese culture and history’

Jaia Werner prepares for the Chinese Lunar New Year for most of the year. The 26-year-old from Madison, Wis., is a lion dancer, an athlete who performs a combination of martial arts and dance while enrobed in a massive leonine costume. The spectacle denotes the casting off of bad luck on special occasions, of which the new year is king.

On the surface, Madison might not seem like a place that would foster a lifelong practice of lion dancing and Chinese kung fu. But in the mid-1990s, Werner was adopted as a 10-month-old from Zhejiang province in China and raised by a single White mother amid a large community of Chinese adoptees of similar ages. After starting taekwondo, a Korean martial art, in the second grade, Werner switched to Northern Shaolin kung fu when she was 10.

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Growing up, she and her sister, who was also adopted from China, participated in several groups for families that had adopted children from China, Werner said. They often featured lion dances at events.

“I saw and I was like, ‘I want to do that.’ My kung fu sifu [teacher] would teach us. We had a summer program where we’d do lion dancing, we’d do kung fu, we’d learn about Chinese myths and legends and history,” she said.

Sixteen years later, Werner, who now works as a special-education teacher in D.C., practices martial arts and the lion dance every Sunday as a member of the capital’s Wong People Kung Fu Association.

“I love the busyness of it and the performance schedule, even though it’s demanding and I’m tired,” she said. “When I was younger, it’s how I would connect the Lunar New Year with my old kung fu school, and it brings back a lot of good memories to be back in it and part of that culture.”

She has performed in eight events this year, with more on the horizon.

“For me, lion dance is a way to connect to Chinese culture and history in a way that doesn’t depend on my ability to speak Mandarin or follow cultural norms I wasn’t raised to know,” she said. “It is something that people really like, which makes me proud of my culture even though I feel more distanced from it, having not been raised in a Chinese household.”


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