Local youth celebrate the Year of the Monkey at WOPL

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange High School Chinese Club celebrated the Chinese New Year with a children’s party at the West Orange Public Library on Feb. 6, joining the hundreds of millions of people around the world in recognizing the new year.

Club members rang in the Year of the Monkey two days before the actual new year began Feb. 8 by teaching boys and girls Chinese calligraphy, playing games with them and helping them craft paper monkeys, among other activities. They even produced their own short play teaching the dozens of children in attendance the story of the Chinese zodiac.

In doing so, the club hoped to give youngsters a taste of Chinese culture, something they might not ordinarily experience but could prove beneficial in the future. Club President Ann Krishnan said that exposing children to cultures other than their own through an occasion like the Chinese New Year celebration goes a long way toward making them into well-rounded citizens in the cultural melting pot that is the United States.

“The more you learn about other people’s cultures, the more you understand where they’re coming from and their thought processes,” Krishnan told the West Orange Chronicle prior to the event. “Then you’re able to interact with and relate to more types of people.”

Krishnan can certainly attest to the value of learning about other cultures; she pointed out that she obtained the rank of club president although she is actually of Indian descent, which shows how important she feels it is to embrace different traditions. And she is not the only one who has benefited from being part of the club and the school district’s Chinese language program.

Club member Josh Winik told the Chronicle he has been studying Chinese since the eighth grade and has found the experience very interesting, so much so that he wants to visit China one day. Everything he has learned in the past few years will definitely come in handy when that time comes, Winik added.

Club Treasurer Bryan Montoya has also found being part of the club to be immensely “rewarding,” telling the Chronicle that his experiences with the organization have really caused him to fall in love with Chinese culture. In addition to having a lot of fun and forming a familial bond with his fellow members, Montoya said he has learned a lot about traditions and a language far different from his own Hispanic heritage. He encouraged others to get involved as well, explaining that learning about other people’s backgrounds can make the world a better place.

“It gives you a broader understanding of everyone around you,” Montoya said before the festivities began. “It fights against intolerance, too. There are some people who are not really accepting of others, and that’s not right. And I feel learning about other people and the way they live is really important (to combat that).”

The new year celebration is a perfect opportunity to learn about Chinese culture, considering that it is the most significant holiday in China. Based on the Chinese lunar calendar, this is a time to celebrate the past year of hard work and wish everyone a prosperous and lucky year ahead. In China, citizens are given seven days off from work to give children and seniors red envelopes filled with money, decorate their houses in red and conduct other cultural customs including shooting off fireworks. Above all, families eat a reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve so that generations of relatives can catch up.

Resident Peter Tuccino has celebrated Chinese New Year a few times, though he is not Chinese. He said he feels it is important to introduce his 5-year-old daughter to different customs so she can grow up attuned to other people’s traditions and beliefs, and so they have attended festivities for Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo and virtually every other cultural event.

But this was the first year they checked out West Orange’s party, and Tuccino said they were not disappointed. From the play to the activities, he said he thought the Chinese Club put on a very nice event for the children. He urged other parents to consider bringing their own sons and daughters next year.

“One doesn’t have to be Chinese to really understand this beautiful culture and the beautiful art and philosophy,” Tuccino told the Chronicle during the event. “I think it’s wonderful for everybody to be exposed to something so old and so beautiful.”

Tuccino was far from the only non-Chinese person at the celebration. In fact, most who attended — including the Chinese Club members themselves — were not of Chinese descent. The 2010 U.S. Census reports only around 8 percent of West Orange’s population is Asian. Still, the children seemed to have a great time gleefully roaming between activities before listening with rapt attention as WOHS Chinese teacher Yajing Li taught them how to say phrases such as “Happy new year” in Chinese.

The parents were pleased as well. Jenn Kaywork told the Chronicle she thought the celebration was a fun way to raise awareness for Chinese culture, adding that it is another example of why she believes the school district is excellent. Antinica Armstrong agreed that the event was a great opportunity for her children to experience Asian traditions they probably would not be introduced to elsewhere.

“This is an amazing idea,” Armstrong told the Chronicle after the festivities had commenced. “I think others schools should try to do something like this as well.”

None of it would have been possible without the efforts of the students, according to Chinese Club faculty co-adviser Li. The WOHS Chinese teacher said the club members organized the event almost entirely on their own, designating responsibilities for one another and turning to Li and co-adviser Yun Abernathy for any assistance. In doing so, she said they demonstrated real leadership skills.

The new year celebration is not the only big event the club participates in either. Li said the organization will join in the high school’s Culture Night in May, and the group meets monthly to hear from guest speakers, play traditional games, learn martial arts and eat authentic Chinese food. Additionally, she said club members help her teach her Chinese language class for young West Orange students, which is offered during the district’s summer enrichment program.

Through these activities Li said club members are not only bettering their intelligence by learning about another language and custom, they are also improving their worldview.

“Learning about a different part of the world opens your mind,” Li told the Chronicle during the event. “When students go back to the classroom to write or to do a project, they have a different point of view. They have more things to relate to instead of their own way. They understand there are many different ways in life to do things.”

Abernathy agreed that studying another culture is more than just a chance to learn a language used by roughly 1.2 billion native speakers. It is an opportunity to be able to connect on the same level with people different from one’s own, which is essential to anyone hoping to succeed in the global community.

“There’s a wide world out there,” Abernathy told the Chronicle during the party. “To know about other cultures helps them to be a world citizen. Otherwise they’d get isolated, and the world doesn’t progress like that. In order to promote world peace and economic growth, they have to know that we’re all together.”

Photos by Sean Quinn