Uncontained Rants...

Sunday, February 06, 2005


“I’m supposed to wear a lot of red, right?” my co-worker questions me when I inform her that Tet (Vietnamese New Year) is just around the corner.

“What about that lucky money, you know, in the red envelopes?” another adds.

These questions about the Lunar New Year, among others, are commonly heard from the typical unassuming stranger in the days leading up to the biggest celebration of the year. But this celebration doesn’t kick off with any Dick Clark-related countdowns or anticipated New Year kisses. As a U.S.-born Vietnamese American, my childhood memories of Tet, lucky money and all, stand just as vividly in my mind as Sesame Street and the smell of crayons.

Tet is one of those Vietnamese traditions that, for those of us who are fortunate to live within distance of a sizeable Vietnamese community, are associated with vast numbers of people, traditions and the ultimate cultural expression—food. At my house, the Lunar New Year begins with the arrival of traditional Tet foods on the table—a vast array of colorful candies wrapped in cellophane, dried and fresh fruits and mouthwatering dishes, each carrying its own symbolic meaning. These foods serve as a reminder of our Vietnamese heritage and the richness of our traditions.

On a typical day throughout the year, the red-stained fingertips of children are the telltale signs of a nearby bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos, but during Tet, fingerprints will usually lead to the suspect dish of toasted and dyed red watermelon seeds. Even on the streets, one can hear the familiar sounds of teeth cracking open tiny seeds, which are then piled into miniature red hills or scattered underfoot. Inside homes, beautiful bouquets of flowers boast of life and vibrant color. The sweet and sour tang of salted vegetables mixed with the aroma of mung bean in fried banh chung (rice cakes) lures innocent bystanders towards kitchens. This is definitely one occasion in which one can never have enough food—to display, to give as gifts, to offer ancestors and to eat.

At home, festivities meant greeting a seemingly endless number of family and friends before joining the group of children furiously shaking dice in bowls and slamming pennies onto tile. For any child under 12 years, Tet meant an advance in our personal allowances and I recall those hours counting and recounting fistfuls of dollars, marveling at my wealth, while one too many red envelopes threatened to escape from my pockets.

On the streets of Little Saigon, the blare of Vietnamese music among pedestrian traffic meant rubbernecking drivers might actually slow down and park, joining the sea of families at the Annual Tet Festival. At the Festival, streams of people filtered into the field, kicking up dirt as children ran in circles and the pungent scent of grilled squid drifted through the air. Young women in ao dai walked gracefully on the grass to avoid stains as the crowd made its rounds from booth to booth, muffled microphones and fuzzy speakers beckoning patrons to their wares.

These memories are only a portion of those imprinted in my mind. It is a time in which the Vietnamese diasporas comes out in full force, faithfully reverent to their traditions in this cultural pilgrimage. Miles and years stand between their lives and their homeland, yet these traditions are still retained and passed down to younger generations of Vietnamese-Americans. In addition to red envelopes and lucky money, these snapshots of Tet memories from my youth, among others, serve as a testament to the timelessness of our Vietnamese traditions.