4.2.11

"The Spirit of Tet"

I celebrated my first Tet in California two years ago with my wife, and her parents who had come from Vietnam to visit. Christmas lights had already been taken down from most houses and the Times Square ball had dropped a month before. 

The weather was cold and misty with rain; it didn’t exactly feel like the right time to be welcoming spring, but when my parents-in-law unpacked their suitcases and handed to us those rare culinary delicacies that can only be found once a year, the excitement on my wife’s face indicated to me that Tet was more than a holiday vacation or a year one number larger.

This was my first experience of bánh chưng, a dense, heavy square package of glutinous rice and fatty pork wrapped in banana leaves and tied with fibers. At the time, however, I had no idea what it was or what to do with it. My family enthusiastically showed me how to unwrap the large leaves and laughed as my kitchen knife got stuck in the green stained rice, my fingers sticky with the struggle. With pride they showed me how to properly cut the giant cube of rice into slices using the strong fiber it was tied with, as they simultaneously responded to my question that ‘no, you do not eat the leaves’. 

The kitchen soon filled with the smell of cooked rice and pork fat, sizzling and popping as the rice browned and crispened, encouraging our relaxed conversation while our parents shared with us news of relatives they had recently visited back in Hanoi. 

Although I admit to not having cleaned my home on that New Year’s eve and had paid little attention to who stepped through my front door the following day, thinking back to that first exotic experience of Lunar New Year, I realize now that I had had the privilege of being a part of the “spirit of Tet”.
I had the good fortune of spending my second Tet in Hanoi as we ushered in the year of the Tiger. Only two months before my wife and I relocated to Vietnam, having made the decision to expand the direction and scope of our careers while becoming closer to family she had spent little time with over the past 5 years living in America. I felt excited and equally nervous, but up for the adventure nonetheless. As Christmas and even New Year’s passed in the distant West with little notice, I nonetheless felt myself being pulled, along with the rest of the country, towards the biggest holiday celebration of the year. 

Flowers and fruits littered the streets as they flew from their branches off the back of motorbikes, their owners carrying the large potted plants home with utmost concentration. Houses throughout the neighborhood proudly boasted apricot blossoms and sour tangerine trees on their doorsteps, posters of good fortune taped to their windows and walls. Entire streets transformed from selling every day household items to carrying pyramids of tea and candied fruits stacked on countertops, their unmistakable red and gold colors reminiscent of firey autumn leaves which had embellished the city only several months before. People rented vans and trucks to transport large cases of gifts home that would soon be distributed to visiting relatives and coworkers whom they wanted to thank or impress. Knowing little of what I should be doing, I stepped back to watch the magic unfold.
Last New Year I ate chưng cakes for three meals a day, and got dizzy from drinking bitter green tea and snacking on sugared coconut strips and lotus seeds. I learned how to crack watermelon seeds between my teeth and tried my best tolerate the sour quất. 

I watched children who had barely learned to walk cross their arms and bow to their grandparents, uncles and aunts and enthusiastically shout “ạ!” when they were handed a shiny red and gold envelope. I cherish the photographs of our family dressed up in our best, standing happily in front of our parent’s festively decorated house. I remember us then going out together, strolling through the city center, my niece not even two years old running with large helium filled balloons tied to her wrist. In the evening, my wife and I returned to our apartment with a grocery bag filled with fruits and boiled chicken taken from the altar in our parent’s home.
I am looking forward to the year of the Cat with excitement, especially after having reflected on the significance of New Year to the people of Vietnam and in relation to my own life. I often imagine the grey winter clouds as the haze of thousands of fragrant yellow joss sticks and paper offerings slowly burning throughout Hanoi. I think of the bustling kitchen filled with steam, mixed with the sounds of crackling cooking oil, excited conversation, and performances broadcast from the TV. 

I am nervous to meet my wife’s relatives again, wondering if this year we will carry on a conversation in Vietnamese for the first time. I become solemn when thinking of visiting the graves of ancestors, dressed in suit and tie, carrying with us boiled meats, xôi, and paper accessories, silently giving them news of the past year’s events, and asking for their support in the year ahead. The weeks that are designated for the celebration of Tet are the rare times I see the tension of cares and worries dissolve from the brows of hard working people, including my own parents-in-law. Where youth is regained through laughter, food, games, and crisp colorful bills in bright red envelopes.
Living in Hanoi and being welcomed into an ancient tradition balanced between ritual and festivity gives me a unique feeling that I never could have imagined my first Tet in California. Only now I begin to understand that look in my wife’s eyes when her parents unpacked New Year’s gifts and food from their stuffed suitcases on that day in our home two years ago. 

Tet is much more than a time tracked by a calendar or a place somewhere in the world; it is the feeling of family, good will, accomplishment and a new beginning that each successive year promises. I believe that not only Tet, but holidays in general are cherished just as much for the feelings they evoke as for the events they commemorate. This is what I believe Tet represents for the people of Vietnam and what it has become for me; more than a day, a week or a month, it is at one time memories of the past, gratitude for the present, and hope for the future that is within all of us.

-Zac Herman 
The Spirit of Tet vietnameselanguage.wordpress.com

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