Chinese celebrate New Year at Richland High

RICHLAND -- For Chinese Americans living in the Tri-Cities, the annual Lunar New Year celebration gives them an opportunity to connect to the country and culture many still think of as home.

But there's also an element of quintessential Americana to the Tri-City celebration, where attendees could find stacks of pizza boxes next to the more traditional rice noodles and broccoli beef.

Pieces of what could seem disparate American and Chinese culture in the hands of the Tri-City Chinese American Association melded into something cohesive and uniquely their own during the four-hour party Sunday at Richland High.

For Sue Kesler, who immigrated to the United States from China more than 20 years ago, the event reminds her of the family gatherings of her youth, when everyone would wear shiny new clothes and fireworks would burst in the air all night long.

"It is the biggest holiday (in China)," she said.

Jianying Shang is a more recent immigrant, having spent more than six years in the United States working for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

She said the annual Lunar New Year celebration eases some of the homesickness she feels for the small Chinese town where she was raised.

Her family's new year tradition involved gathering on New Year's Eve, eating a sumptuous meal and watching the New Year celebration broadcast on TV.

She said the holiday is important because it's one of the few times everyone is together.

"In China, many people work out of town. For New Year, they go home," she said. "It's like American Thanksgiving."

The annual celebration offers Kesler and Shang the chance to meet with other Chinese people and share their culture and their friendship.

The party started at 5:30 p.m. with dinner for 800 catered by a number of local restaurants. Volunteers smiled as they wove through the crowd carrying dishes heaped with noodles, stir fried vegetables, beef, pork, rice and even Peking duck.

Attendees then rang in the Year of the Rabbit with singing and dancing performances in the high school's auditorium.

As the heavy red curtains parted, percussive Chinese music filled the auditorium and dancers in bright yellow, white and red costumes flitted across the stage.

They carried red ribbons that became extensions of themselves in a structured, rhythmic dance.

But halfway through the song, another set of dancers -- couples in tuxedos and champagne-colored ball gowns -- wafted onto the stage and performed nimble ballroom steps around the yellow- and white-clad dancers, blending Chinese and American art forms before flowing back offstage.

In some ways, Kesler herself embodies this cultural symbiosis. She is married to an American, but her Chinese roots remain strong.

She said she is happy to have the close-knit community of the Tri-City Chinese American Association to stay connected to her countrymen and her past.

"All the people are like family," she said.