A Trip to The Chinese Market: Reflecting On A Covid-Era Lunar New Year

Maevis Fahey '21, Editor-in-Chief

Every year, on a random day in January or February that everyone seems to forget, the Lunar New Year arrives. Out of all of the Covid-era holidays we’ve encountered, the 2021 Lunar New Year has been my favorite: a beautiful chance to freshen one’s surroundings, catch up with family members on Zoom, and eat bottomless bowls of Chinese food.

When I think of a Lunar New Year, I immediately think of my family taking a trip to our favorite Chinese market in Quincy, MA. I can picture us as we make the usual rounds: the Vietnamese sandwich shop (my favorite), the wonderful bakery wafting with fresh pork buns and rice balls, the colorful produce section stuffed with closed fist squashes and bok choy, and the towering shelves filled with our favorite Chinese candy, crackers, and cookies (Market Basket could never). Even though we’re all teenagers and adults now, my siblings and I probably always look like four little kids on a sugar high on a non-chaperoned field trip. After we fill our arms with the precious goods, we wait in line impatiently before rushing back to the car. If we’re fast enough, we pile into our seats and dig into the warm, soft pork buns before my mother has a chance to say “doh je” to the cashier.

The red and gold new year seemed to usher into our home a bit early this year, especially because the one and only Carol ‘21 moved in with our family a month ago! Besides the perpetual merriment surrounding the fact that one of my best friends now lives across the hall from me, Carol and I have also had the chance to bond through another lens: our shared Chinese culture.

Needless to say, the Lunar New Year and our usual experience at the Chinese market looked quite different this year. Since the New Year fell on a snowy Friday in February this year, I went to the market with my mom, little brother and Carol on the Sunday beforehand. Carol and I have gone to the Quincy market together in the past, so she knew exactly how excited we were feeling, which made it even better. But there were some visible Covid-era changes, like the socially distant tape markers and sanitizing stations standing sentinel at every corner. It’s weird, even now, to picture the colorful wonderland of special foods and treats I know so well as a place where all of the familiar employees wear worn blue masks and scrub their counters with disinfectant every few minutes.

Nonetheless, the market glowed with red and gold oxes standing proudly on the front of posters and lanterns like the ones decorating our windows at home. As we stood in line at the bakery, the familiar smells of our favorite foods made my mouth water just like always. I watched the workers rush back and forth holding trays of twirled dough and dazzling cakes topped with dragon fruit and strawberries over their heads, calling out orders to each other in words I can’t understand. My mom speaks Cantonese and Carol speaks Mandarin, so I listened to them trading the terms for pork bun and rice ball in their respective dialects. A lot of the words are completely different, but sometimes they find ones with remarkably similar pronunciation, like pork bun: “cha siu bao” and “cha shao bao.” I love these moments.

I can hardly imagine spending a year and a half abroad and far away from my favorite familiar foods, so I next drag Carol over to the gigantic aisles of Chinese snacks and treats. We find one of her favorite candies from back home and pick out some traditional New Year’s candy, too. While precariously holding bakery boxes and candy bags, we head to the frozen section and find my favorite red-capped Chinese yogurt milk drinks that come in little two-inch bottles. You probably have no clue what I’m talking about, but take my word for it — they’re amazing.

We wander around the market, laughing together and showing each other our favorite foods. Somewhere in the middle of it all, I realize that this is exactly what the Lunar New Year is supposed to feel like. Learning to take the ox by the horns (haha, sorry) and accepting all of the new changes unfolding around you.

Carol was there during every moment of our Lunar New Year celebrations. We woke up to a lucky red envelope from my parents on New Year’s morning, laughed and took funny pictures with Cecilia and Faith (‘22) on our way into school, and watched our friends try the funky New Year’s candies for the first time in the Senior Commons. When we got home, Carol helped unpack my poa poa’s big box of traditional Chinese dishes and treats, and sat next to me on our couch during our big family Zoom as we all laughed and wished each other a happy, healthy new year.

The Quincy market on a calm Sunday morning is no Beijing on New Year’s night, and meeting my poa poa through her wrapped and mailed Chinese dishes and smiling face on Zoom is nothing like being welcomed into her home with my family. But I think it’s safe to say that Carol and I shared one of our favorite Lunar New Year celebrations ever. Traditions are only as important and meaningful as the people with whom we choose to share them, and this year, I feel like we hit the jackpot. 

Our next adventure, you ask? St. Patrick’s Day is coming up fast, and I can’t wait to share so many more Irish family traditions and laughs with Carol to cherish forever.

Maevis Fahey ‘21, Editor-in-Chief