Annapolis celebrates Chinese New Year

Fourteen-year-old Rachel Szpara of Parkville is convinced deep in her heart that at least a few drops of Chinese or Korean blood run through her veins.

Never mind that her name is proof of her Polish ancestry. Who cares if her light-brown hair, tightly bound into two braids, points to German forebears? Or that her smattering of freckles — not to mention her fanciful imagination — may be part of her Irish heritage?

As she practiced her calligraphy Saturday at the Chinese New Year's Celebration at the William Paca House in Annapolis, Rachel, a freshman at the Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson, expounded on the theory of her Asian roots. In honor of the occasion, she was dressed in a cheongsam (a form-fitting, high-necked Chinese gown) of palest lilac that she picked up in a vintage store, along with gold trousers and jade earrings.

"We're from the southern part of Poland, which had a lot of Chinese people," she says, "so we think maybe we're a very, very tiny part Chinese."

The Annapolis event, which attracted more than 100 visitors, was one of several celebrations in the Baltimore area scheduled for the next few weeks that will usher in the Year of the Dragon.

Technically, Historic Annapolis, which sponsored Saturday's event, could be accused of jumping the gun. Year 2012 in the Chinese calendar doesn't start until the first new moon after the equinox, which this year falls on Monday. The 15-day celebration runs until the first full moon rises on Feb. 6.

The celebration offered Rachel and her sister, Natalie, 11, plenty of opportunity to explore their previously unsuspected cultural heritage.

The highlight of the event was the performance of the lion dance, performed by a family trio consisting of Billy Greer and his adult offspring, Lane and Glenn.

The ancient legend has a complicated story involving a monster called a "Nian" that ravaged the village's precious winter supplies. The tale has a lion with a proven record of chasing away the Nian, but who was unable to help out the villagers of one particular town because of a scheduling conflict. Those resourceful villagers figured that if a real lion could put some fear into the Nian, a puppet of a lion might work just as well.

The black, white and green puppet capered around the side of the Paca House and bounded up the front steps. As the children in the audience squealed, it licked the door (lion saliva is supposed to be good luck) while the "villagers" banged on cymbals and a big drum.

The celebration included a station at which children could learn about the Chinese zodiac, another where they could cut out red "double happiness" signs, and a third where they could marvel at the intricate embroidery on three 18th-century Chinese robes.

The Szpara sisters got into the mood during the car ride from Parkville. They listened first to a CD of Chinese piano music and then to two of their favorite Korean bands, B2ST and 2NE1.

They reminisced about Rachel's fifth-grade birthday cake, which she asked be made to resemble sushi. (It was layered with fruit jelly, rolled and cut into bite-size pieces.)

Rachel is the only non-Asian student in her school to join the Asian Club. She says her Chinese and Korean friends assigned themselves a fraction representing how much Asian blood they possess.

"All my friends were Asian No. 1," she says. "I was Asian No. 1/32nd."

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