Chinese New Year is a 15-day festival. It starts on the second new moon after the winter solstice and marks the beginning of a new year on the Chinese calendar. The holidays are filled with family reunions and celebratory dinners much like an American Thanksgiving. Dumplings with many different fillings are a featured tradition. Family members come together to roll, stuff, cook and serve these savory delights.
Jackson School Mandarin teacher Mrs. Vicky Ni taught her fifth and sixth graders how to make dumplings and her fourth graders how to eat them with chopsticks.
Using mini rolling pins on flour-dusted tables in the kitchen of the Jackson Walnut Park Schools’ Student Center, students rolled small balls of dough into circles then filled them with a teaspoon of stuffing Mrs. Ni prepared with beef, carrot, onion, spinach, and a little soy. Folding the dough around the stuffing, students fluted the seams with their fingers and placed them on trays. The shape of a dumpling resembles a coin pouch, a Chinese symbol of wealth. Jackson parents manned the stove, boiling each tray of dumplings from specific students’ tables in individual pots. The excitement of eating their gourmet creations was palpable. As they sprinkled a little soy over the dumplings and began to eat, students were heard to say, “These are so good;” “I never imagined I would like these – can we have more!” Mrs. Ni also served them fried rice, hot from the oven as an accompaniment.
Mandarin students in Grade 4 enjoyed dumplings, made by the older students, in their Newton classroom colorfully decorated with lanterns, banners, and Chinese symbols and greetings representing the New Year. Mastering the challenge of chopsticks with help from Mrs. Ni and an assisting parent, hurrahs were exclaimed as students devoured mouthfuls of dumplings. They like their older peers returned repeatedly for more of the savory treats.
When the fourth graders finished, Mrs. Ni introduced another New Year family activity, “red paper envelopes” embellished with Chinese drawings and letters. Traditionally, parents distribute them to their children with money inside that reflects good luck and honorability. Historically, the color red scared away bad luck and evil spirits. The contents of the red envelope hold items that are new, signs of good fortune in the year ahead. Mrs. Ni, to the students’ delight, filled the envelopes with colorful hard candies, red bookmarks, and small, gaily colored notepads.
As they left the classroom, students called out “Happy New Year” and “Thank you” in Mandarin. At Jackson Walnut Park Schools, immersion into a foreign culture and its traditions and festivals is as important as mastering the new language. It builds an appreciation and an understanding of world cultures.