Tet Tet Tet Tet Den Roi. Xuan Xuan Xuan Xuan Ve Roi.
Happy New Year! Happy, HAPPY new year! Let’s pretend I said that two weeks ago just for effect, shall we?
This blog post will be entirely dedicated to Tet (Vietnamese New Years)-related events and stories. My Tet vacation is a different story altogether, so let’s save that for later.
Let’s start with some background information.
“The Vietnamese take extreme care to start the New Year out right. They buy new clothes, paint and clean their homes, cook three days worth of food, pay off all debts and make amends to rid themselves of all bad feelings. Cleaning is frowned on during Tet because one would not want to sweep out any good luck.
Tet is a time for visits from family and friends. The first visitor to a home is very important. If the first visitor is rich, prestigious, or happy then the family will have good fortune that year. Usually this visitor is a relative, but sometimes the family will invite a special guest that they feel will bring them good luck.
Negative talk, and arguments are taboo. Visitors end their visit with a farewell wish for the family such as, “I wish that money will flow into your house like water, and out like a turtle.”
Not only is Tet the beginning of a New Year, it is also every one’s birthday. A baby turns one on Tet no matter when he/she was born that year. Children say they were born in the year of the symbol of the lunar calendar for that year. On the first morning of Tet, adults congratulate children on becoming a year older by presenting them with red envelopes that contain “Lucky Money,” or li xi.
Food plays a major role in the Tet celebration. Tet is a time of excess, one does not enjoy Tet, one “eats” Tet. ”
God, all that copying and pasting really took a toll on me. I need a finger massage.
:::pushes automated flash-back blurry-ing wave sequence button:::
I ended the last post talking about my preparations. It was a week before Tet. My family back in New York was having the big annual Tet party at my house, and I was fortunate to participate in the New Year’s speeches via Skype (it gets weirder everytime I think about it.)
I love how my family celebrates Tet. We’ve created something completely different. The li xi (lucky money) receiving part was always the highlight of the party, and it used to always be some quick, nervous, public-speaking regurgitation of generic Vietnamese New Year blessings. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, since it is a traditional component to Tet… but over the years, we’ve built onto it and made it something so different and beautiful. Most of us kids now all share stories, talk about our past years in entertaining detail, and the overall morals of every speech connects to family- the respect, love, and pride we have for our parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, fellow siblings, and close friends that we consider family.
I promise you, that there are probably only a handful of Vietnamese families that are comfortable enough to share such heart-felt emotions with each other. Vietnamese dads usually have their own unique way of showing their love… you know, like saying “Ok. Well do well in school.” and give a handshake. But, over the years, the kids have really opened up our parents’ hearts and eyes, and they’ve really tried their hardest to listen to us with full open-mindedness (a tiny little change from back in the day…) It was only this year that my Dad started saying “I love you” to his kids and my Mom. My uncle said it best in his speech: “You see, Vietnamese men are not supposed to say “I love you.” We never say those words. We’re not supposed to. And it is truly remarkable to hear that Mr. Huynh has changed enough to say those words now.” Our family is constantly growing, and I guess Tet is just an annual reminder to see how far we’ve actually come.”
It’s such a wonderful gathering full of boundless love, and it always makes me so proud to be a part of my family. Not to mention, we’re a bunch of sillies who make up scavenger hunts, new drinking chants, and also pressured me to open up a beer at 9:00 a.m. to virtually toast and clank beers with them through a computer screen. I like my family because of those reasons too.
That day (Sunday) the kids at the shelter split up into two groups to perform in two separate locations for big city-wide Tet celebrations. I chose to follow my hip-hop boys at the nearby Cultural Performance Center, but couldn’t get too many good pictures since the stage was so big, there was too much fog from the fog machine (this is normal.), and the front row was reserved by all these important heads of the city. I thought about it… “Excuse me, extremely important officials, would you mind if I completely block your view and ruin your evening’s entertainment so I could take some terrible, far-away photos? I’m only a foreigner!” But, I resisted from losing valuable face points. heh.
There was one moment that was pretty spectacular. I saw my kids waiting behind the curtains, getting pumped up for their dance. And just like out of some cheerleading competition movie, another group of young hip-hop dancers took the stage right before them. They all took their spots on stage and there was one much taller kid with a Vanilla-sky-sort of mask positioned in the middle. Then, some weird mix of mechanical ratchet and clock sounds, Amelie music, and live-crowd cheers accompanied slow, group robotic movements. My kids were staring at them intently, occasionally whispering and pointing at the group, and I could only imagine the nervous, competitive thoughts racing through their minds. Afterward, my kids did their dance and you could tell they were nervous. They did great, and definitely impressed the crowd with their new step-team abilities, but all they said afterward was, “Man! I knew we should have bought a mask. It makes your dancing look so much better! We had that idea before we saw that group. Seriously!” Of course, this wasn’t a competition at all… so it was even funnier and more adorable to hear these young, natural reactions.
Later that day, I got two invitations by the Hue Government People’s Committee to attend special New Year’s dinner parties the following week. Did.
There was crazy looking, not especially-delicious foods, and so many toasts with gov’t officials who made rounds to every table, that my seat was never able to get warm. The first dinner party was karaoke-centered and several old men with silly, long official titles serenaded us with old folk songs. I’m surprised I wasn’t called up to sing for being the “Witness of the Former Vice-Presidential Assistant Cabinet Member Candidate of Hue’s People Committee’s First Eaten Egg-Roll.” I was hopeful… but, my 4 minutes of fame never came.
The second dinner party was at the infamous Century Hotel and included a “traditional Hue music program.” I felt sort of sorry for the group of B-star musicians/dancers who must have had to perform this same set of performances every night for gullible, infatuated, “want-to-be cultured” tour groups. Imagine wearing intricate flower lantern hats, fake white beards and Chinese-influenced imperial robes every night of your life (Well okay, that actually sounds sort of fun.) …but, you should have seen the faces of the musicians. They all had blank, “One Life to Live”- knitting expressions permanently fixed on their faces. Even though I knew I was trying to show genuine, respectful attention, I realized that from their perspectives, I wasn’t distinguishable from any other snap-shot taking audience member’s “wow, this must be authentic, honey” attention. Maybe I’m being too cynical. At least they look good.
That night, I came back to the shelter to head the decorating committee for our big party. Then, I started to get dizzy, my body was heating up, and my back started aching and hardening. I told my kids, “Welp. I’ve got food poisoning, I already know it.” I nonchalantly called it, took some ciproflaxin (I always have extra from previous food poisoning episodes.), and went to bed. (I like how I often have to translate my Vietnamese back into English for this blog, but still use words like “Welp”- words that I would’ve said at the time if I was speaking in English, but actually have no idea how to express in Vietnamese. My brain will detonate in t-minus 5 minutes.)
The whole next day, starting at 5am, my existence was extremeeely painful (also, have you noticed that my food poisoning count has gone up to 3? Thanks Century Hotel!) it was the day of the big end of the year party that I’ve been planning for weeks in advance, and everyone made a big deal out of it like I was some important key-note speaker for a graduation and their only back-up was a children’s birthday party donkey. I had about 15 separate visitors in a few hours… the perks of living upstairs from your office and across a courtyard from 38 kids, I suppose. But, the party was to continue. IT MUST GO ON.
The party didn’t go exactly as planned, but it was still really… funny. The room was decorated beautifully with hung-up flowing fabrics, lanterns and flashing x-mas lights (x-mas light strands here have a button that goes through several different flashing modes, and I like the mode where the lights dim in and out slowly… but every time, I changed it to that, some kid would just turn it back to SUPERFLASH4000HD seizure mode). Everything was yellow and red and symmetrical to my liking. While I was in bed, the kids helped string up the 38 paper cranes that I made over three days (one for each kid), and also hung up all their home-made in-class Tet cards on our fake apricot blossom tree (which turns out was actually a jack fruit tree with fake pink peach blossoms on it, since all the yellow apricot blossoms were sold out at the market. I did think it looked a little funny at first.)
I thought I made it kind of clear that it was a dinner party and that we should start eating when it got dark out (thus all the pretty lights), but the boss had to leave early or something so we ended up eating at 5pm… when it was completely light out. haha. So, here we were, getting ready for dinner in this lavishly decorated, lit up room… in the daylight. Here, I would imagine Ronald McDonald prematurely stopping a tape player playing “Do you believe in mag…” ::click::. Then, he puts the boom box over his shoulder and leaves a party saying, “Lame.”
After some speeches were made, we all ate at intentionally co-ed mixed tables (while doing a seating chart, some of the boys were forcing me to put people’s crushes next to each other.), and then I put on some classical music. Now, I only wish you could have been there to feel how unaccepted and rejected Bach felt. I now realize that classical music dinners only give joy to irony-filled young adults like myself, or adults who prefer schmoozing with headmasters that have slumpy, carp-like, Ben-Stein mouths that I can only imagine release “Muhh…” moans when they try to talk. But to the general Vietnamese civilian… it just doesn’t make sense. Of course, I found joy in this non-joy.
I also thought I explained thoroughly how a dinner party works. A talent show was to follow the dinner party so the point was just to relax and eat slowly, converse and enjoy each other’s company, and then sit back and lazily watch kids do silly things. But, the moment each table was done eating, the kids did rock, paper, scissors to see who washed the dishes, and every kid jumped out of their seats to start clearing the tables, putting the chairs away, and basically ran out of the room before a word could even come out of my mouth. I could see my co-party planning partner, Nhat getting frustrated that things were going wrong, but I couldn’t help but laugh. They’re good kids. They’re just used to cleaning up right away. It couldn’t be stopped. I SAID THE DISHES HAD TO BE DONE :::panting heavily:::. So, the talent show didn’t happen immediately, and we had a good half hour break before the dinner party “continued.”
The 1st annual Xuan Phu Shelter talent show was a success, well in it’s own way. Here were some of the acts:
There were four groups of boys that did small group acts, varying from group hip hop dances, to singing, to rather creative and hilarious skits. The girls were too shy to do anything on their own, so their three acts were all performed by the entire girl’s room. There was one particular song/dance that was amazing- where the girls all danced to Lucky Twice, starting in a circle and eventually revealing Nhi, the youngest girl, in the middle completely accessorized with bad-ass hip hop punk girl (circa 1980) clothes. Then, every dance move she did, two lines of girls copied and it looked like something straight out of Paris By Night. It was brilliant.
The next day, every child was allowed to go home for Tet. Almost every kid in Vietnam has relatives of some sort, so there were aunts and uncles and grandparents all coming to pick up kids the next morning. I gave out li xi (lucky money) instead of receiving it for the first time in my life, and shortly after, everyone had left the shelter except for 8 kids.
As the days passed, the numbers dwindled down to just a few kids, who either didn’t have any family to go to or who stayed at the shelter because they really hated being home. I tried to spend every single minute with them, and it was good to bond with kids who I wouldn’t normally spend much time with.
One night, I brought back french fries for the few kids who were left, and they ate in less than 5 minutes. One girl then rushed to me, with an empty, white-streaked mayonnaise condiment bag still in her mouth, and I told her that was gross. Then, she laughed and continued to squeeze the remaining mayo in her mouth. That’s actually the last notable thing that I can think of, before I left for Ho Chi Minh City… a child with a mayo bag in her mouth. Pleasant.
So yeah, I spent the biggest days, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, down in Ho Chi Minh City. When I first got to Ho Chi Minh City, I was really excited to eat some good, Southern food… but then as I was walking to find a street stall, I ran into a new, fancy, fast food chain called BBQ Chicken. I accidentally stepped into it’s vortex.
That was a random detail. Anywho, for New Year’s Eve I went into the city and sat down in a random chair in a park to read, only to realize 3 hours later, there was a huge free concert being prepared in front of me. Vietnamese people were laughing at how silly I was to be reading and noticed that I was reading an English book, so girls would say things to me like, “Oh man, this guy better not stand up or else I’m gonna take his seat! Giggle giggle…” thinking I didn’t understand them. During the first half hour of this concert, I saw this:
And then I saw my first Vietnamese celebrity, Phi Nhung! (a regular on Paris By Night… I don’t really like her and she got a terrible nose job… but for some reason I was still excited that I actually knew a Vietnamese singer!)
After she was done singing, I stepped out of my seat, turned to the girls standing behind me and said in Vietnamese, “It was nice listening to you. You can take my seat now, have fun!” After, I picked up their jaws and politely handed it back to them.
I met up with Dung and Anh-Thu and we were off to the crazy downtown streets to gaze at all the silly lights and people poses in front of them. The finger in the dimple while resting the arm on an imaginary ledge seems to be a popular pose this year. We made an impulse buy to adorn our heads with odd-colored devil horns (supposedly ox horns, but I don’t buy it.) and when we finally stopped to watch the fireworks, a new building seemed to be blocking their view… yet, everyone around us was still taking long, 5 minute videos of a dark-lit high-riser with sporadic glimpses of lights behind it. The amount of MB’s used on that… I’ve gotta change the subject before I get too upset.
Here’s what downtown Saigon looks like this year’s Tet. I love how Saigon could potentially be a high school hall decorating contest purgatory. Why am I always thinking about purgatories?
After that, we went back to Dung’s house for a water closet pit-stop, only to realize later in the night that I was the first visitor in his home after midnight (remember, this is supposed to be a big deal according to Vietnamese tradition). Woopsies! There’s a Vietnamese horror story…”And then! and then! He INVITED himself into our house while we were sleeping! Only to use our BATHROOM! Our luck is going to be in the bathroom for an ENTIRE YEAR!” Yep, and it felt just that special too. May all your toilet paper rolls never run out for a year. Love,#1.
…Oh, and then we went to a Buddhist temple for Dung to give alms… it kind of felt like Buddhist Disneyland. I didn’t get home until 4am.
Okay. One last Tet event… the actual day of Tet! This is the day where no family leaves the house. Everyone just eats, drinks, gambles, and sleeps all day in the same building with their whole extended families. I was invited to spend New Year’s day with my best Vietnamese friend Dung’s family, and I’ve got to admit, it was awkward at first. It was obvious that most of them didn’t know I was a Viet-American until I started talking about who I was. They all kind of thought it was strange that some Vietnamese local boy wasn’t spending Tet with his own family, but with their’s…haha, I should have just pretended I was a lost dog. That would have been simpler.
Every time I spend a good amount of time with a Vietnamese person/family, I feel like I’m accomplishing some sort of small goal related to creating better understanding between Vietnamese and Vietnamese Abroad. It makes me think about my study abroad time two years ago when I wasn’t so comfortable with my Vietnamese speaking, and how I often felt undermined and judged because I couldn’t respond to them right away without stuttering. A few years ago, I would actually witness locals talking about how all “Viet-Kieu’s” (yeah, I don’t like that word.) just lose respect for their own culture and stop using the language, and I would never be confident enough to tell them they were wrong. But, because I can speak the language well now, I can keep a conversation going and answer all their questions with ease, which I think really helps me wins their respect right away.
But it’s funny- sometimes I feel like an exaggerated pity-case. They feel bad for me that I’m not with my family or because I don’t get Tet vacation in the U.S. (it’s mind-blowing every time my kids hear we don’t have Tet vacation. heheh.) Then, when they ask me what I’m doing here and I throw in the English-teaching card, they offer me shots and shots of face-point whiskey. After that, they ask me how old I am and they get even more protective thinking that I’m so young to leave home for a year… then they force-feed me like I’m sort of hermit who’s been living off of dirt minerals and spit.
It’s really interesting… not all Viet-Abroad’s will get this pampering (actually I always got the opposite last year.), and I’ll occasionally run into the people that think I’m a spoiled brat on vacation (a common view of locals and actually of my distant family here.) But now it seems like I fit this charming, adopted son mold of Vietnam, everywhere I go… I may not get the same stardom as non-Vietnamese looking expats, but it almost acts as a pre-sorter to all the people I’ll meet (to keep me away from those people who want to be my friend for dumb reasons.)
There’s been recent talk about extending my VIA contract for another year or not (the deadline to decide is coming up soon), but in a way, it kind of already feels like my second year here. No, I’ve decided I’m not staying another year with VIA (sorry, it’s just not in the cards.), but I sure am glad that I came back after my study-abroad. My study abroad was so full of “firsts” and experiences with really heightened emotions, that a lot of things went out of focus. But, this year has been much more calmer and reflective, which may have something to do with Hue. But, now that I’ve comfortably made my second home here in Vietnam, I can probably start my Chipotle franchise as soon as possible. …Kidding? I think. (Oh God, I want nothing more in life than a bite of a FACE-SIZED Chipotle burrito right now.)