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‘A more integrated place’: Local students share how they celebrate Lunar New Year in their community

ORLANDO, Fla. — Lunar New Year is a time of reflection and hope for good fortune in many Asian communities.

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It starts on the first new moon of the lunar calendar and ends 15 days later on the first full moon. This year, the Lunar New Year began on Feb. 10.

2024 also marks the Year of the Dragon, one of the Chinese Zodiac animals, representing strength, courage and good luck.

For the Orlando community, it’s a time to come together, even if you are unfamiliar with Asian cultures.

Read: Central Florida celebrates: Lunar New Year events in February

Colin Poon, co-president of REACH of Central Florida and an Apopka High School senior, said more non-Asian people are going to festivities, making it more of a community event rather than just an Asian event.

“I think that definitely helps in terms of helping out Asian-American businesses and bringing a broader clientele,” he said. “But it also helps in terms of cultural awareness and you know, that broad spectrum of how do we become aware and accepting of other people and other ethnic groups.”

As an Asian-American, Poon became more involved in the Asian community after the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings. A wave of AAPI hate crimes happened during his life, but Poon said it decreased as he got older, and he felt “detached” from it since it was on the West Coast or in the Northeast. It was a different feeling after the Atlanta shootings killed six women of Asian descent.

“Once it hit the south with the Atlanta spa shootings, I sort of realized that it’s closer to home than what I thought,” he said.

Read: Lunar New Year: What to know about the Year of the Dragon

That passion to bring unity sparked Poon to join REACH, a local Asian organization, and attend a Chinese school in Orlando to learn the language. He added he felt an obligation to honor what made his culture special and continue showing that same pride to others who may not know about it. He did not have a lot of exposure to the community before, except with family reunions.

“It sort of made me realize that I should try and cherish what I have regarding my heritage,” Poon said.

He found a way to bring more people from his high school into the mix by founding and now leading Apopka High School’s Asian Student Association, a missing link to REACH.

“I first joined REACH because we didn’t have an Asian Student Association Apopka, but I sort of created one to make it easier for people to sort of know about REACH,” Poon said. “We’ve slowly gotten more people from REACH because our meeting locations are still on the east side of Orlando.”

Poon has also been a major part of leading the Central Florida Dragon Parade Lunar New Year. He said the hard work pays off when he sees the fruit of his labor, the performers and the overall excitement.

Another student making a difference in the community is Alic Tam.

Tam is one of those parade performers as a student at Wah Lum Kung Fu & Tai Chi Temple Orlando.

He started at Wah Lum about eight to nine years ago and eventually joined the performance team. Tam practices for lion dance and kung fu shows at local businesses and restaurants, which he looks forward to.

“We make a lot of loud noise in a good way, and it brings a lot of attention to people,” he said.

Read: Orlando celebrates Lunar New Year with annual Central Florida Dragon Parade

Tam, who is Chinese and Puerto Rican, is also involved with the Chinese Club as a freshman at Timber Creek High School. He said he brings his family together by teaching them about Lunar New Year and them watching his performances.

“Recently, my interest has expanded by a huge ton,” Tam said. “And I’ve been really involved with Wah Lum and I gotta say, it’s part of my life now.”

Another performer who feels the same way about Chinese lion dancing is Mike Wong.

Wong leads the Lion Dance Team as a junior at University High School and is the treasurer of the UHS Asian Student Association.

“It really helps me feel tied back to the Asian community because whenever I do lion dancing, I feel a lot of passion towards my culture especially,” he said. “And it’s also really fun to me, especially because of all the acrobatic movements.”

After the COVID-19 pandemic, Wong noticed the ASA Chinese lion dance costumes sat in the back of the room, untouched and used more as decoration. He asked the ASA president if he could form his lion dance team, and a small group of friends joined the team.

Wong ensures Lunar New Year is also a way for people of different ethnic backgrounds to celebrate the festivities. People have approached him and asked him about lion dancing because of his performances at school events. Wong suggests other community events if they’re interested.

Through word-of-mouth and the prevalence of Asian culture in mainstream media, all students have seen an increase in the number of people participating, volunteering, joining REACH or just watching the events.

“To me, that’s what diversity means,” Wong said. “Bringing my culture and spreading it to people of different cultures, and making our community a more integrated place.”

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