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Correction to This Article
In a Jan. 29 Metro article about the Lunar New Year, a quotation was incorrectly attributed. It was Chung Pak, chair of the board of directors of the League of Korean Americans of Maryland, not Henry Lau, a co-founder of the Maryland Coalition for Recognition of the Asian Lunar New Year, who said: "The Italian Americans have Columbus Day, the Irish have St. Patrick's Day, and African Americans have Martin Luther King Jr. Day. ... But the Asian American community has nothing. It's like we're not real Americans."
Chinese New Year: A Quest for Official Recognition

A Date With Tradition

A crowd at Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg watches a dragon dance in celebration of the Chinese New Year, which is today.
A crowd at Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg watches a dragon dance in celebration of the Chinese New Year, which is today. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 29, 2006

Emily Yee-Mei Lee remembers that as a child in Taiwan, she longed for the next Chinese New Year, that fabulous day when she would receive neon-red envelopes with $100 bills and gorge on scrumptious pork dumplings.

But in the United States, Lee usually confronts the festival with angst and guilt: Instead of spending the whole day celebrating, she trudges to her job as a computer programmer and ships her 15-year-old son off to school.

"It makes me feel like it's impossible to be a good Chinese and a good American," said Lee, 47, of Ellicott City. "It's just so hard to properly celebrate the holiday in this country."

The Lunar New Year -- which is celebrated today by more than a billion Asians around the world -- presents a troubling annual dilemma for many of the country's 12 million Asian Americans: honor your millennia-old traditions by taking the day off, or bow to the pressures of Western society by going about business as usual?

Asian Americans such as Lee say they shouldn't have to make that choice. In a sign of their increasing political power, Asian American groups in the Washington region and across the nation are pushing measures that they hope will eventually result in a federal holiday, with public schools closing and employees staying home from work.

"This is about respect for our culture," said Henry Lau, a co-founder of the Maryland Coalition for Recognition of the Asian Lunar New Year. "The New Year is the most important festival in our culture, and that needs to be acknowledged."

The Howard County Council passed a measure this month to prohibit public meetings on the holiday. The Maryland General Assembly is considering a bill to officially recognize the day, and activists in Virginia are lobbying for a similar measure. Groups in the District are proposing to close school on the Lunar New Year.

The growing movement echoes efforts by earlier immigrant and minority groups that fought for recognition of holidays that honor them, Lau said.

"The Italian Americans have Columbus Day, the Irish have St. Patrick's Day and African Americans have Martin Luther King Jr. Day," said Lau, 60, a manager at the Environmental Protection Agency who lives in Columbia. "But the Asian American community has nothing. It's like we're not real Americans."

The movement's first major success came in 1994 when San Francisco agreed to close its schools on the Lunar New Year. Lorna Ho, a school system spokeswoman, said the city had little choice because so much of the staff and student body, which is now 39 percent Chinese American, took the day off. "It just wasn't cost effective for us to run school when half the population wasn't teaching and so many students were missing," she said.

Momentum picked up in the Washington region after New York City in 2002 declared the Asian Lunar New Year a holidayon which street parking regulations are relaxed. Lau, who is also president of the Coordination Council of Chinese-American Associations, a group with members throughout the Washington region, began about a year ago to organize an effort to replicate the city's approach throughout Maryland.

Activists from the Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese communities have collected more than 6,000 signatures in Maryland for a petition to recognize the Lunar New Year. And they continue to explain the importance of the holiday -- which is observed by many Asian communities, including the Vietnamese (who call it Tet) and Koreans (who call it Sol Nal) -- to elected officials and the public.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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