Being raised as a second-generation daughter of immigrant parents, balancing my identities as both Vietnamese and American proved to be incredibly challenging. Similar to most young children growing up, my utmost desire was to assimilate. Living in a predominantly white area, I already stood out more than I desired. Indeed, in my early years, I struggled with my Vietnamese legacy and often felt like I was living a dual life. With time, however, I came to cherish and embrace my Vietnamese heritage and grew to be proud of my identity. A significant influence that facilitated this shift as I entered adolescence was the ability to observe Lunar New Year, or Tết, annually with my extended family. It’s the singular occasion where I genuinely feel connected to Vietnamese culture and witness the celebration of my legacy in its entirety.
Tết serves as a day brimming with promise and contemplation, reminding me of my essence and the significance of the holiday in my life. Surrounded by my family, I partake in time-honored customs passed down through generations. I cannot speak for all Vietnamese-American families, but for mine, these Lunar New Year traditions enable us to invite luck and joy into our lives for the upcoming year.
How My Family Observes Lunar New Year
Donning Traditional Attire
Lunar New Year commences early for my family with the donning of traditional attire for the occasion. Though traditional garments are not typically worn, many Vietnamese Americans, including myself, opt for traditional clothing during Tết. Women adorn áo dài, a long split tunic over silk trousers, whilst men may wear áo gấm, a sturdier version of an áo dài, or a suit. Though I didn’t appreciate it much in my younger years, I now feel a sense of proud anticipation when it’s time for me to put on my áo dài. This sentiment intensifies as I witness more Vietnamese Americans adorning their traditional garments as well.
Paying Respects at Temples
While my parents and I are not Buddhist, many of our family members are, so as per tradition, we commence Lunar New Year by visiting our local Buddhist temples—primarily to honor our deceased relatives, seek blessings for the year ahead, and show reverence to the monks responsible for the temple’s upkeep. Despite the throngs of visitors at the temples, there’s a tranquility that envelops me as I witness the smiles of the welcoming monks at the temple entrance.
My attention is immediately drawn to the vibrant decorations and the path leading to the temple, where a large incense burner awaits. After lighting the incense, I step inside, clasp my hands near my forehead in a prayerful gesture, and articulate my aspirations for the year ahead. This ritual prompts me to contemplate my desires for the coming year alongside other optimistic individuals.
Upon completing this, I patiently await my turn to draw a numbered fortune stick, which is among the oldest forms of fortune telling. These sticks, engraved with numbers inside a wooden tube, are shaken above the head until one falls out. The number on the stick corresponds to a slip of paper handed out by a monk, revealing the fortune for the year—whether it predicts luck or misfortune.
Preparing Traditional Dishes
Following the temple visit, my family congregates at my grandmother’s house, as it is customary to assemble at the eldest family member’s residence for the remainder of the day and night. There, we savor popular Lunar New Year dishes, each laden with symbolism and purpose. Thịt Kho Trứng (Vietnamese braised pork with eggs) is my personal favorite dish, symbolizing goodness and delight. Witnessing the array of Vietnamese delicacies meticulously prepared by my grandmother for our entire family imparts a deeper significance to the flavors, especially when I comprehend the meaning behind each dish.
Exchanging Red Envelopes
After sharing the meal, we engage in the tradition of exchanging lì xì (lucky money), where adults present children with a nominal amount of money in red envelopes to wish them good fortune. The adults typically form a row or circle, while the children approach each of them to exchange well-wishes for the upcoming year.
“I love partaking in this tradition because I get personalized one-on-one time with each of my older family members and get to hear what they hope my year will bring me, and in return I do the same for them.”
In my family, the tradition continues until marriage or parenthood, meaning I currently receive extra pocket money each Tết! I cherish participating in this tradition as it allows me to engage in meaningful conversations with each elder family member and learn about their aspirations for my upcoming year, reciprocating with similar well-wishes. Additionally, it provides an opportunity to practice and enhance my Vietnamese language skills, as the well-wishes are often poetically elaborate.
Playing Games of Chance
Once all the children have received their lucky money, the entire family customarily engages in various entertaining games of chance. A childhood favorite is Lắc Bầu Cua, a Vietnamese gambling game involving three dice and a board adorned with images of a gourd, fish, prawn, crab, rooster, and deer. Each participant wagers on an image before a designated game master shakes the dice, displaying pictures of the depicted items, and the winning image brings fortune! It’s typical for us to stay up well past bedtime, reveling in the new year by participating in these games.
Why Tết Holds Profound Meaning for Me
What makes Tết exceptionally meaningful to me is that every aspect of the day is deeply rooted in my culture. From my attire to the culinary flavors, each element is intended to lay the foundation for a prosperous year. As I mature, the well-wishes conveyed by my family members carry deep significance as I comprehend their meanings. Most importantly, these traditions have enabled me to embrace my Vietnamese heritage and take pride in being a Vietnamese American.
It instills in me the hope that one day my own children will find solace and joy in our Tết traditions. Each year, this holiday serves as a reminder of my identity, reconnects me to my purpose, and provides solace to the young girl who once questioned whether she would ever belong.