For as long as I can remember, it’s been the same celebration. Weeks of preparing decorations and inviting friends and family. Thirty or so of us cramped in our kitchen and living room. Dumplings, eggrolls, and yuan xiao (my favorite traditional Chinese sticky rice ball dessert) galore. The shuffling of Mahjong tiles intermingled with laughs and shouts of “Ai ya!” from the losers. A Wechat notification that my grandparents are trying to video call.
Though I’m from the Mississippi and have always been immersed in a culture of football and fried chicken (I love and miss it – another culture shock), my parents made sure I didn’t lose touch with my Chinese roots. I was lucky that our small college town had a tight-knit Chinese community. Saturdays and Sundays were filled with Chinese language class and traditional Chinese dance lessons. I went through the usual struggles of an Asian-American kid in the Deep South trying to fit in with black and white, so at times this insistence on balancing both cultures was confusing and complex. Nonetheless as I grew older, I became more appreciative and grateful that I was still able to connect with my family in China on a very personal level.
Fast forward to Chinese New Year 2018, and the story has drastically changed. At Hopkins, I faced a new, unexpected challenge: finding new ways to celebrate the Lunar New Year without being surrounded by the familiar traditions the past 18 years. It didn’t help knowing that since I was no longer at home, my parents were in China with my grandparents and extended family, no doubt having a blast, while I was stuck in cold, rainy Baltimore with the usual pile of work in front of me (don’t worry, I’ve learned to love Hopkins regardless).
Insert the Lan Yun Blue Orchids here. I’d joined the Chinese traditional dance group in the previous semester thinking it’d be a hobby on the side. Let’s be real, I needed to get my exercise from somewhere. I also had some experience in this particular area of performing arts, which was a plus.
Little did I know the group would be more than just a chance for exercise. It became the key to not only keeping but strengthening that connection with my roots. Each dance has a history and story from the region of mainland China it originated from. Whether you are a second generation Chinese-American or simply have a fascination for traditional Chinese dance, each team member has a true dedication to ensuring that the appreciation for traditional Chinese arts continues through the Hopkins community. The team quickly became my getaway from the stresses of college life- my second family. From flipping plates to twirling ribbons, we’re always pulling out new tricks from our sleeves. Our goal is simple: to create a beautiful dance incorporating classical Chinese elements all while having a fun, relaxing time.
This year, we celebrated the new year with several performances all over the Hopkins community. From the Hopkins Medical School to JHU’s Chinese Student Association, various groups celebrating the lunar new year invited us onstage to showcase our newest presentation. Each celebration was filled with familiar tastes (performers get free food, yeah!) and sounds (lots of laughter and cheers for the new year), and instantly I felt right at home. How lucky I was to have the opportunity to not only be a part of such a diverse and cultured community, but to be able to express my love for my Chinese roots while surrounded by friends who share the same passion. It was a refreshing and vibrant way to welcome the new year, and I honestly wouldn’t have traded those moments for anything.
Going through this experience brought me to the cliché realization that everything truly is what you make of it. I’ll admit, I’ve had a rather difficult time adjusting to the challenges that college life brings and my initial mentality going into the Blue Orchids wasn’t the best one. Something I thought would just be a random school activity turned out to be so much more, and I cannot express how grateful I am to have stumbled upon this wonderful group. From now on, you can catch me listening to er hu or gu zheng (traditional Chinese instruments) tunes and choreographing moves for our next dance during my free time.
CiCi Zhang is a freshman studying Neuroscience from Starkville, Mississippi. She describes Hopkins as “a wonderful place for cultivating appreciation for arts and culture.”