Living in the US, I try to keep my Vietnamese heritage relevant. At times, this takes some effort and I can get lazy – way easier to succumb to the Super Bowl and eat nachos. Happily, I'm finding myself particularly jazzed this year about the upcoming Tết holidays with all its traditions and glorious food.
Tết, Vietnamese New Year, is big deal in our culture – like if Christmas, Independence Day and every other “Hallmark holiday” fell on the same day. It celebrates the arrival of spring and takes place on the first day of the lunar calendar (same day as Chinese New Year, usually around February). The name is shortened from Tết Nguyên Đán, meaning “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day."
Certainly, it is joyfully anticipated. Growing up celebrating Tết, I learned that it packs much more than festivity. Its rituals and superstitions reveal a lot about the Vietnamese psyche.
Tết brings opportunity for renewal, a reset button that we treat super-literally. Extreme pragmatists, we are raised to look forward and rarely back. Day One is serious. The belief is that everything you do on this day sets the precedent for the rest of the year. Imagine the pressure. Every first counts!
In preparation for Tết, new clothes are bought, big meals are planned, your debts are paid and your home is cleaned. Sweeping on Tết is considered bad luck xui (unlucky) because you are sweeping away good luck. Being xui is the worst of all curses, and achieving good luck is at the center of all. It can border on obsessive. One example, the Vietnamese believe that the first visitor a family receives in the year determines their fortune for the entire year. We actually have a name for it - xông đất - the act of being the first person to enter a house on Tết! A person of positive character and success is a lucky sign. Because the criteria is murky and consequences are grave, Vietnamese folks simply know you don’t go around visiting willy-nilly on the first day of Tết.
Every year on the eve, my mom would leave the house around 11:58 pm only to re-enter right after midnight. Just to be safe.
This is my heritage. Essential, absurd and beautiful. Must not forget.
Let’s celebrate, like it’s 4718!
From the "Our Roots" project, a photo series that explores the complexities of the Asian-American identity, and acknowledges the beauty of growing up within this vast and varied intersection.
- Creative Partners: Carmen&Co.
- Art Direction: Haruko Hayakawa
- Photography: David Chow