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Mom, son share Chinese holiday traditions

McKeesport Area fourth-grader Jonah Ma shared a lesson in Chinese culture with his White Oak Elementary classmates just in time to celebrate the most important traditional Chinese holiday.

Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, will be observed Jan. 23 to ring in the Year of the Dragon.

"This is going to be the Year of the Dragon the luckiest year of them all," Jonah's mother Sarah Ma said. "You dress in red. The decorations are red. You color your door in red."

Sarah Ma shared stories of Chinese luck and traditions with Jonah's classmates on Friday in a program she has brought to the White Oak school annually.

Jonah was born in China and lived there for his first six years of life; his father Ma Wei still resides there.

Jonah attended first grade in a Beijing school and repeated that grade in the McKeesport Area in order to develop his English language skills.

This year's program was special for Jonah because it was his first time running the trivia portion of the presentation.

Coordinated with a slide show prepared by his mother, Jonah asked classmates what they know of Chinese geography, population, statistics and climate. He shared family photos that illustrate aspects of Chinese life including recreation, food and celebrations especially those that apply to the Chinese New Year observance.

"There are lots of holidays around the world that celebrate spring," Sarah Ma told Jonah's class. "Chinese New Year is a way of getting people through the long winter."

Jonah and his mother told stories about fireworks and boisterous parties that can't be escaped. For example, in his grandparents' apartment complex, hundreds of residents spill into an open courtyard to share their joy for the coming year.

"At Thanksgiving, you all eat together and somebody serves you," Sarah Ma said. "But for Chinese New Year, it's part of the tradition for everyone to cook together."

The class looked at photographs of elaborate fish dishes and traditional dumplings even a few shots of Jonah in the kitchen.

"It's interesting, when people are different, to learn a little bit about them," Sarah Ma said.

An admissions staff member at Penn State Greater Allegheny, Sarah Ma received a little help from the campus' international students in making name tags for Jonah's classmates and teachers. The tags were made like bookmarks and featured the phonetic spelling of each individual's name in Chinese characters.

After the program, Jonah distributed another treat Chinese snacks and candies to his classmates.

"Some of it you will like, and some of it you won't like. But try it," his mother said. "There's more to life than chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese."

With sweet smiles and a few unsettling grimaces, Jonah's classmates chomped on their snacks and recognized familiar flavors including gummy citrus fruits, butterscotch and even a rice cake-style treat.

Teacher Nicole Cherepko said she was thrilled to have Jonah's mother address the class, especially at a time when social studies lessons were focused on the American motto adopted in 1782, E Pluribus Unum, meaning "from many, one."

"We were talking about the motto of the United States and how people came here from different places," Cherepko said. "It was a fitting opportunity for the class to hear about Jonah's family and culture."

Jonah thanked his mother for coming to the classroom with a hug, a simple "thank you" and a hope that his classmates will begin to celebrate his favorite holiday.

"I think you should recognize differences and appreciate them," Sarah Ma said. "I want Jonah to keep up on his Chinese and appreciate who he is. I can't teach him about Chinese culture. I want him to know the reasons to be proud of being different."

Jonah spends summer months in China with his father and extended family.

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