My Vietnamese mother reminded me that Tet, the Lunar New Year, fell on Jan. 29 this year. As an American, I’ve never been quite sure what that’s supposed to mean for me.
I know a little about the sticky rice cakes, altars with incense and fruit, and prayers for a prosperous new year. The holiday falls between late January and mid-February each year, based on the first day of the lunar calendar.
I took my mom and children to an Asian supermarket where I bought some joss-sticks for Tet, thinking we’d continue Mom’s tradition of lighting the fragrant yellow incense in honor of deceased relatives.
No one can tell by looking that my children are part Vietnamese, especially my son with his blue eyes and wavy hair.
And they don’t think of me as anything but American. Yet their grandmother’s small stature, facial features and heavy accent seem different to my oldest daughter, who on occasion will ask whether something is “Nanna’s food” or “Is Nanna ‘Viennese’?”
The supermarket’s display of decorations, dried fruits and lucky bamboo for Tet fascinated my children. Roast ducks hung from hooks in the deli window next to cuts of roast pork, various prepared buns, stir fry and rice dishes. People lined up two deep in several directions.
My daughter picked out red envelopes decorated with dragons, fish or Hello Kitty to share with her class. Vietnamese would fill them with “lucky money” to congratulate their children on becoming a year older.
It always amazed me that my mom doesn’t know her exact birth date. I learned that the Vietnamese don’t note their actual birth dates. Regardless of when a baby is born the prior year, he turns 1 on Tet.
As with the Chinese, each year corresponds with a sign of the zodiac. This is the year of the dog, and those born this year are said to embody its spirit of fierce loyalty and honesty.
I was born in the year of the monkey. Though my husband might find the erratic, silly attributes appropriate, I try to emulate the monkey’s more positive qualities: natural curiosity and cleverness.
A Tenuous Connection
Strangely, despite being the most significant Vietnamese holiday, Tet passed with little fanfare in my family. My mom set up her altar with oranges and incense, but we observed her rituals without feeling truly involved.
As a child, I was exposed to Vietnamese customs but had little understanding of them, aside from the food, which I ate daily. Born in Washington, D.C., I grew up speaking English. I couldn’t say a complete sentence in my mother’s native tongue.
My father’s assignment took us back to Vietnam and I started kindergarten there in a French academy, where I tried with little success to understand the nuns.
These earliest memories are of listening to French in school, Vietnamese in the marketplace and English at home. Not surprisingly, I spoke none of them well. So my parents agreed to speak only English.
Upon returning to America during the fall of Saigon in 1975, I soon learned that anything Vietnamese was far from popular. And I really wanted to fit in as American.
Like the Cubans who escaped from Castro and the Irish who fled the potato famine, all the way back to the colonists that settled here from England, we all came from somewhere.
So I tell my kids they’re Americans, of course.
As for myself, I’ve learned something. Despite the language barrier and growing up American, I’m a bit eastern in many ways. Ultimately a lifetime of exposure to my mother’s culture, foods, and beliefs shaped my experience and attitudes.
My Vietnamese heritage is part of who I am. And inevitably, I will pass this on to my children, as my mother did to me.
MyLinh Shattan’s father served as the cultural attaché for Vietnam and her mother, as an interpreter for the U.S. Embassy.