'There are no downsides to sharing culture': Asian American Student Union collaborates with TDR for Lunar New Year dinner
AASU called the event a step in the right direction for representing Asian culture on campus
Kelly Ma is used to celebrating Lunar New Year with her friends and family, but when the dining staff at American University reached out with the idea of creating a Lunar New Year dinner for other students, Ma saw it as an opportunity.
“The goal of this was to open up our culture and traditions to the AU community,” said Ma, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Communication and the president of AU's Asian American Student Union. “It was both educational but also community building and representing our culture … which isn’t seen often.”
Lunar New Year, also known as Spring Festival, celebrates the beginning of a new year on the lunar calendar in China and other Asian countries including South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam. The historical holiday, which can be traced back 3,500 years, has traditionally served as a chance for millions of people to travel home to see their families, where celebrations center heavily around food.
The dinner, held on Jan. 25, consisted of traditional Asian foods that are typically served during the Lunar New Year such as fish, noodles, dumplings and shrimp. Each dish was included for its symbolic importance in Asian culture, said AASU Advocacy Member Alvin Li.
“Fish holds a lot of significance because it represents prosperity and surplus,” said Li, a freshman in the School of Public Affairs. “Dumplings represent wealth; it’s said the more dumplings you eat the wealthier you’ll be for the year.”
According to Ma, the process of preparing the menu involved a coordinated effort between AASU and Terrace Dining Room staff. Ma and her team members worked with dining staff to create dishes that were authentic to Asian culture while still following TDR’s guidelines, which accommodate students with dietary restrictions. AASU also handled the advocacy side of the event, making online graphics and social media posts promoting the dinner to the student body.
“It was really easy to coordinate with them,” Ma said. “They were very responsive and very knowledgeable on what they have, what they can do and what their limitations would be.”
Julia Ojo, a sophomore in SPA, said eating foods from different cultures makes the dining experience more interesting.
“I feel like it opens the variety of different cuisines because a lot of people have never had this type of food before,” Ojo said. “I find that it increases people’s palates and will make them want to come here more.”
Daniel Yachi, a freshman in SPA and member of AASU, said the food reminded him of home.
“The Asian population on campus is really small, so it’s really nice for us to have a night where we feel like we have our homestyle food here,” Yachi said. “Over here in D.C., it’s harder to get [Asian food] … so it's really nice to have it here at AU.”
Lilla Khan, a sophomore in the School of International Service and AASU vice president, said the turnout at the event was greater than she or her team members could have expected.
“We were very surprised by the amount of people who were giving us support and writing little notes to AU’s kitchen and putting them in red envelopes,” Khan said. “It was nice to build more connections on a cultural level to educate people who are maybe not so familiar with East Asian culture.”
During Lunar New Year, it’s tradition to make red envelopes for loved ones containing money as a symbol of good luck for the new year. At the Lunar New Year dinner, students had the chance to write notes expressing their gratitude, hopes and well wishes to the AU staff.
Members of AASU added that, though they believe the success of the dinner is a step in the right direction, they feel AU still fails to give enough attention to diverse Asian cultures on campus.
“We got to express our culture and be recognized for it, but there are also a lot of other Asian holidays coming up more geared towards South Asia and the Middle East,” Li said. “It’d be nice for AU to recognize those holidays and maybe work with campus affinity groups to shine more of a light on an area that is often ignored.”
Li and Khan said that support for Asian student groups is even more crucial given the recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. Hate crimes targeting Asian Americans increased by 339 percent between 2020 and 2021, according to a study reported by NBC News. The largest rises were reported in cities including Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco. Khan and Ma said that establishing safe spaces at AU for Asian students is important to combating isolation.
“For our [executive]-board this semester, I think we want to focus a little more on AAPI mental health which is not very widely spoken about, but I think AAPIs are the community that may need that support most especially in a post-pandemic world where they’re still dealing with the trauma from those abuses in our community,” said Ma, who proposed adding affinity and other student leaders to AU’s Plan for Inclusive Excellence to create better communication between staff and students.
“We are a part of the community and we understand the struggles and we want to help others who probably and most likely share the same feelings as us,” Ma said. “At the same time, we didn’t realize that we were burning ourselves out trying to maintain this community where our members can find their place at AU.”
Looking to the future, Ma and Khan said AASU hopes to collaborate again with TDR as well as other affinity groups such as the South Asian and Hindu Student Associations to highlight diversity within Asia.
“There are no downsides to sharing culture,” Khan said. “We hope that people, the administration and dining will collaborate not only with us but other affinity organizations, too, because I think cultural exchange here at AU is a big thing that will help anyone.”
This article was edited by Zoe Bell, Jordan Young and Nina Heller. Copyediting by Isabelle Kravis.
Correction: A previous version of this story listed incorrect titles for Lilla Khan and Alvin Li. Their titles have been corrected. A previous version of this story used the term Chinese New Year as another way to refer to Lunar New Year, which has since been removed from the story, as Lunar New Year is celebrated by both those from Chinese and non-Chinese backgrounds.