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How an Arizona dad passing down Lunar New Year traditions to his kids

Lunar New Year began on Saturday, and runs for about two weeks. And for Bobby Kwan, it’s a time to celebrate with family and food.

Kwan was born and raised in Phoenix. His parents came to the United States from China in the 1970s. He joined The Show to talk about how his family celebrates Lunar New Year.

Full interview

BOBBY KWAN: I was thinking about that question, and growing up, I've always thought of it as just things that we did. Not as traditions of our family but figuring it was just things that we would just do all the time. And a lot of it is getting together with our family, having a nice meal. The number eight is very lucky in our culture, and so, there might be eight different kinds of dishes, being fish, beef, cold cuts or something, soup, noodles, rice, whatever they wanna make.

And then having red envelopes given out to the people who are kids or unmarried, things like that. But yeah, it was super normal as a kid and then growing up you're like, these are traditions of our culture that we're celebrating, that my parents still continue to instill into us and things like that. So, we're giving it to our kids and passing those traditions on.

MARK BRODIE: Is it different food every year? It's not like the same dishes that you do year after year?

KWAN: It’s whatever you guys want to come up with. So if you have it in your budget to have lobster, you could definitely do a stir fried lobster or steamed fish and it doesn't matter the type of fish and things like that. Whatever the chef or the moms wanna get together and make for that year. It's nice that way because having the same thing all the time, it would get kind of boring and that shouldn't be the tradition, right? It should just be a little bit more relaxed and flexible.

BRODIE: Do you partake in the cooking? Do you help in the kitchen?

KWAN: I help with some things, I could definitely make an egg drop soup, I could stir fry some rice and noodles, things like that. But I leave the gutting the fish and cleaning it out and then steaming it to people who have done it for many more years than I have to.

But guess I've watched them enough that I could probably do it myself, it's just, they like to keep it in their hands. It's their responsibility, I guess.

BRODIE: Let me ask you about a dish called jung. Is that one you tend to have with your family?

KWAN: Every year, we have the sticky rice and the filling is really up in the air as to what you want to put in it. Very traditional would be salted egg, Chinese sausage and a piece of pork. Sometimes if you like peanuts, soft boiled peanuts would be added to it. If you like beans, they can add beans to it, but they're usually made in large batches and handed out and given as kind of an offering to eat and things like that. We just made some, we made 500 this past week, for a festival that we just did in downtown Phoenix. It's a lot of work, but my mom and my aunt, after three days they cranked it out. It was just them two, I believe.

BRODIE: Do you have big get-togethers? Like is your family all together to celebrate Lunar New Year?

KWAN: Yeah. So, our family consists of eight grandkids and then there's three siblings, my brother, my sister and myself, and we're all married and then a few aunts and uncles are in town and we'll get together on one side and then get together possibly again, on another side. Not all together but just multiple celebrations of gatherings really.

We have family in California that would come out or we go out to them things like that. But January or February is the time for us all to come together and have a meal and get caught up.

BRODIE: So I'm curious how you see Lunar New Year and the celebrations that maybe you and your family do, relative to being in a place like Phoenix, which is not China, and doesn't have the world's biggest population of Chinese Americans.

Do you see it as an opportunity to maybe teach people about Chinese culture and sort of teach people about what it's about or is it just kind of like a thing that you and your family do and some other people do and that’s kind of it?

KWAN: No, so I recently joined an organization, a nonprofit organization called Phoenix Chinese Week and they go around and promote and educate the community on the Chinese culture. We did our annual festival that's been going on for 30 years plus now. And there's a lot of display of how you play Mahjong, how the dragon dance is like this, the tea ceremony is like this. And so I want to instill all that stuff into my kids and my nieces and nephews and then hopefully, people that aren't even of Chinese descent can learn and maybe even embrace some of these things for themselves.

BRODIE: And Lunar New Year is a sort of an opportunity to do that?

KWAN: Yeah. So, well, I guess for us it's Lunar New Year and then there's also other seasonal festivals that we celebrate because of the harvest and things like that. So, it's the changing of the seasons. You harvest one thing and then you move on to the next and kind of just go about throughout the year. And hopefully, I think through these traditions, they also want to bring good luck, if they keep doing the same thing and it's been lucky then they kind of just keep doing it.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.