Last weekend I went to Stonington, Connecticut, with some of my friends—one of them has a summer house there and we were going to stay in it for New Year’s Eve.

I haven’t spent a New Year’s Eve in the U.S. for five years now. Back in China, where my family’s been living till recently, we didn’t really celebrate New Year’s Eve, beyond staying up to watch the clock strike 12. The real celebration was on Chinese New Year, which is usually in February. It’s the biggest holiday of the year—we got a week or two off of school just to celebrate! During the weeks surrounding Chinese New Year there are massive fireworks displays every night. It’s all red and seems louder than New Year’s Eve in the USA. There are so many fireworks displays that by the time the holiday’s over you feel like you cannot possibly bear another fireworks display and you wish the fireworks makers would explode. Everyone exchanges red envelopes, or hóngbāo, filled with money or chocolate coins. Colorful dragons and lions parade down the street and children clap and make red paper lanterns. I looked forward to watching the acrobatics shows in our neighborhood courtyard. And, best of all, sometimes you would even see paper sky lanterns being set off into the night, even though they’re usually only supposed to be for the Moon Festival in the fall. They’re super pretty and they fly way up in the sky like tiny hot-air balloons.

Before Sunday, my only vivid memory of New Year’s Eve in the U.S. was loud, scary noises a million miles up in the air. I was a little kid, and I remember being scared rather than amused in the slightest. So on the way to Connecticut I was feeling like, No red envelopes, no dancing dragons—just something scary from when I was seven. This isn’t going to be fun at all.

When we got to Stonington, it was afternoon. We watched a movie and then it was dark and time to go to a bonfire on a beach. There would be fireworks, and a giant glowing ball would drop from the flagpole in the parking lot as we counted down. OK. That didn’t sound too bad.

When we arrived, all the people there, mostly adults, seemed to be having a great time. The bonfire owned the night and people were wearing party hats and waving noisemakers. I trailed behind my friends, and I wasn’t having a bad time, but I didn’t really see the point in being there. The bonfire was like two feet tall and there were no fireworks or anything at all. And then I looked up.

Stars were dotted thick across the sky. It was a velvet backdrop with millions of tiny lights. I’ve never seen anything that beautiful in my life, I swear!

And then, as I stared up for about a jillion hours, I saw something in the distance. Something familiar. Two small paper lanterns were glowing yellow as they floated past in the sky. ♦