SAN FRANCISCO -- Parking is tight at markets, lines are long for roast duck and some of the best sweets are selling out as millions of Americans prepare to celebrate the Lunar New Year and the arrival of the Year of the Snake on Sunday.
People across the nation are preparing for the holiday, the most important for many Asian families. If they live far from Asian supermarkets, some make two- or three-hour treks to nearby cities to buy the iconic foods that make the festival: long noodles for long life, whole fish with head and tail attached for family wholeness and sweet red bean soup for a sweet new year.
In Silicon Valley, Asian malls such as Grand Century in San Jose and Vallco in Cupertino are full of families shopping for the new year. In San Francisco, lines stretch down the block at favorite shops that sell duck, chicken and barbecued pork.
"Let's face it, everybody, especially Asians, love to eat," says Carolyn Jung, who writes the FoodGal blog in Santa Clara, Calif.
The Lunar New Year is a festival celebrated by more than 1.5 billion people in Asia and a growing number of Americans, but many Americans don't know much about what's called Chinese New Year here. In China, it's the Spring Festival.
"It's like Thanksgiving for us," said Ganggang Hu Guidice, 28. A software engineer, she came to the USA from Beijing and spent three years working in Huntsville, Ala., where few people knew anything about holiday.
Worldwide, Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese and other Asians celebrate the beginning of a new year on the second new moon after the winter solstice. It's a time of gathering with family, honoring ancestors and eating.
Asians are the fastest-growing racial group in the USA, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. From 2000 through 2010, the Asian population increased 45.6%, four times faster than the overall U.S. population. The rise of the Asian-American community means the Lunar New Year will become more important, said Min Zhou, a professor of sociology and Asian-American Studies at UCLA. In 2011, Asians are almost 6% of the U.S. population, according to the Census.
Only in San Francisco, where 34% of people are Asian, is Lunar New Year a school holiday. Some Asian Americans are pushing to have it acknowledged nationally. A petition on the White House website We The People to make it a federal holiday had more than 33,000 digital signatures as of Friday morning.
One of the signers was Ivy Lee May, a lawyer in Silicon Valley. She says she doesn't think there's much chance of a national holiday, but she would like to see it at least in California, where 13.6% of the population is Asian.
She has taken her son out of school only once for the Lunar New Year. "If we had a day off, we could gather all the friends together, but if it falls during the week, we often don't do anything," May says.
"It is the most important Chinese holiday," says David Schaberg, a professor of Chinese thought and literature at UCLA. "It's like Christmas and Thanksgiving."
An important tradition is lucky money, which symbolizes prosperity for the coming year. Friends and relatives give children red envelopes that usually contain a crisp new $1 bill, Jung says. In the days leading up to the new year, there are long lines at banks as people get new bills to give away.
In St. Paul, Michele St. Martin does what she can to create Chinese New Year for her two daughters, both adopted from China. "We try to clean," she says of the custom of cleaning the house from top to bottom to usher in the new year. "The kids hate that part," but they like the red envelopes.
Her family feasts with friends who are Chinese, and they always makes dumplings. "We're Americanized, so we use the dumpling makers where you squeeze them shut" instead of folding the delicate dough into perfectly crimped half-circles by hand, she says.
One big part of the new year in China is a glittery, four-and-a-half-hour all-star variety show that has aired on New Year's Eve for 30 years and is viewed by about 700 million people. When Guidice lived in Georgia, the Huntsville Chinese Association decided to create its own gala. The group rented a hall at the University of Alabama and got the town's biggest Chinese restaurant to cater it. More than 500 people attended last year, and Guidice was the emcee.
In past years, she would even forget what day the new year fell on because no one around her celebrated it, but last year was "great," she says.
This year, her parents are flying in from Beijing, and they'll all meet for a vacation in Costa Rica. What you eat or where you are isn't important, Guidice says. "The Lunar New Year is a symbol of being together with family to share joy and happiness. That meaning is much more important."