This is You, and This is Beautiful: How cultural traditions help us celebrate our differences

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When my family visited my mom’s relatives in Chicago over the holidays, my brothers and I would cross our fingers, hoping to be there over New Year’s. If we were, we’d usually see my mom’s extended family and celebrate with a couple Korean traditions. As a kid, I didn’t really understand it. All I knew was that we’d get some cash from our elders if we bowed and mumbled something in Korean. 

Young Yi grew up celebrating New Year’s Day in a traditional Korean way. “Being Korean, starting the new year with blessings and family is a big deal,” he said. “[We] celebrated with family members by gathering together from the morning until the evening and celebrating with a couple of key traditions.” 

The first is a form of traditional bowing called “sae-bae.” 

“With the bowing comes paying respect and blessings to the elders of the family, and in return, either a word of encouragement, blessing or money is given from the elders to the youngers,” Yi said. “A second tradition that comes with the New Year celebration is eating a dish called ‘dduk-gook.’ In Korean, ‘dduk’ is rice cake and ‘gook’ is the word for soup. “This rice-cake soup is meant to be eaten every New Year’s Day and is meant to … give strength and health for the year.”

My mom isn’t particularly sentimental, so we never learned the proper, formal bow, and we don’t see my mom’s family over New Year’s anymore. But every year, my mom makes dduk-gook, and we invite friends over to celebrate with us. 

Lansing resident Carla Brooks had a similar experience with her mixed heritage: “Being a mixed kid is something all of us mixed kids get to be together, and it’s a certain thing that we experience that people who aren’t will never understand.”

“We celebrate almost no cultural holidays, and we’re fully immersed in American culture,” Brooks said about her family’s experience. “However, we infiltrate our heritage and culture into every holiday that America celebrates. A large part of this was because of how awful Hispanics were treated in this country around the time my dad was born. Families in this time period felt it was better for the kids to only speak English. They felt the kids not having accents would help.” 

Suban Nur Cooley, a doctoral student and graduate assistant at Michigan State University, moved to the U.S. from Somalia in 2006. She fondly remembers celebrating with her family during Ramadan. 

“Some of my favorite memories growing up were spent in he kitchen for the last afur/iftar,” Cooley recalled. “I love this tradition. We would chop up tomatoes and watermelon – their cool touch was refreshing to our fasting minds. We would paste the sambuusi dough together and cut up the diamond-shaped pieces of mandazi.”

Cooley continued, “My whole family would cook together. Then we’d fill the water jug, watching the condensation form as we waited for the adhan. And finally, we took our first sips and bites and celebrated thankfulness together, aware that the merriment and community of Eid was around the corner.” 

Alexa Dresner, a human biology student at MSU, has similarly fond memories of her childhood. One tradition that she celebrates is Passover. This lasts for seven days, and throughout the week there are different customs they have to follow. For the first two nights, they have a Seder. 

“This essentially is a family dinner, but each person gets a prayer book that talks about the traditions and customs for this dinner and how the Jews have come to where we are today,” Dresner said.

In the middle of the table is a Seder plate that has an egg, a shark bone, a charoset, bitter herbs and a dark-colored paste made of fruits and nuts. Each one carries significant meaning as to why it’s eaten, like how bitter herbs represent the bitter times the Jews went through to get out of Egypt.

During the seven days of Passover, there are certain foods they cannot eat, but that depends on their specific Jewish descent. “Instead of bread, we substitute matzah, which is basically a cracker with no grains in it,” said Dresner. “We supplement it with everything we eat for that week.” One of her favorite traditions is making matzah pizza with her siblings. 

“This is one week that reminds me of the suffering the Jews went through to become free. The reason we eat matzah is because the Jews were preparing for Shabbat, which is Friday night dinner. Their bread didn’t rise and left them with what we call matzah,” said Dresner. “No matter what religion you are, you should always commemorate where your ancestors came from and what they suffered to make our lives easier.”

Cooley agreed that our traditions tie us to our families and ancestors: “For me personally, these traditions are important due to the nostalgic connection it has to both my familial upbringing and the Somali cultural community.” 

To Brooks, celebrating her Hispanic culture along with American traditions has been healing in a lot of ways and has helped her feel free to be herself. “In a world where I don’t fit into any box, these things are beautiful because it’s almost like solidifying over and over that this is you, and this is beautiful,” she said.

“The interesting thing about celebrating diversity is that we are able to see that people – though they may look different, speak different languages, smell different, eat different foods and have different traditions – are much more similar than they think,” Yi said. “When we celebrate diversity, especially in America, there is a learning opportunity and the unknown becomes known, and therefore people who are different than us aren’t as scary or intimidating as we may have initially thought.” 

“For many populations, traditions often connect them back to a home country or community still held dear in the hearts of people who don’t have access to these places anymore due to war and other circumstances,” Cooley said. “These traditions are a way to remember and honor ways of knowing, being and belonging for communities across the globe, which then connects them again in the new spaces they call home.”