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I come from an area in California that is home to the largest population of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam. It goes without saying that one doesn’t have to think twice about culture back home. It’s something ubiquitous. In Orange County, it’s normal to see 10 pages in the yearbook filled with kids sharing the same last name. In addition to Spanish, French, and German, you can take Vietnamese to fill your high school language requirement. Banh mi (actually spelled correctly on our menus) sandwiches only cost $3, and to pronounce pho like “foh” is almost a misdemeanor.

I took all of this for granted upon saying yes to JHU. It was strange not eating banh chung with my family and strolling through the Tet Festival with my friends.

But the uncertainties I felt and the cultural shock, I realized, had less to do with my location than with my way of thinking. All I had to do was open my mind. Before I knew it, I found that for every minute I spent thinking about how I could be celebrating Lunar New Year at home, there were hours of things that I could do here in Baltimore to celebrate the Year of the Dog.

Let’s backtrack a bit. I joined the JHU Lion Dance troupe back in August, just because I was amazed at how artistic yet intense it was, allowing me to experience something here that reminded me of home. I became passionate about it, but it really wasn’t until Lunar New Year came around that I became sure of how much I love it.

Our first performance of the season was in Silver Spring Maryland, where we performed for, much to my surprise, a Vietnamese New Year festival! Although it wasn’t exactly like what I had back home, being surrounded by the ~New Year vibes~ totally made it worth it.

Then it was the Chinese New Year celebration at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where seeing all of the happy families–Chinese or not–assured me that even though I’m not physically near my family, I’m surrounded by a new family that I’ve found: my lion dance family.

Students smile next to man in panda costume

And then there was the time we performed in a neighborhood. Outside. In the snow. Okay, it doesn’t sound that great, but the food we enjoyed after with the families in the neighborhood made it all okay.

Four Chinese New Year envelopes

Despite the snow, we got some serious red envelope money.

My favorite memory from this New Year season has got to be the day we performed at the Singapore Embassy, not because of the Embassy itself, but because of the bonus performance that we did spontaneous at a restaurant afterwards to thank the owner for being so generous in giving us so much hospitality (and dessert!).

Onlookers smile as they watch a lion dance performance

This performance took place in a restaurant where we were eating and was totally unplanned. Seeing how happy everyone was made me happy!

Up until this point, I had only been a cymbal player or the tail of the lion. But on February 25, it was time for us freshman lion dance members to showcase our months of training at the Chinese Student Association’s Lunar New Year Banquet. It might not have been the most beautiful performance ever. But man, were we proud.

Lion next to an audience

That’s me in the head for the first time!

But my main point is that if you’re feeling any reluctance about going to college in a place that might be culturally different, rest assured; you’ll find an organization, a family, a celebration, or whatever it may be that will make you feel like you’ll have never left home.

Lion dance pants, with the caption "Happy Lunar New Year"Four students smile for selfie