I’ve been getting wound up for the Lunar New Year, which is the biggest event in the Vietnamese calendar. Most people in the States call it Chinese New Year. This has always been a mystery to me…because I grew up celebrating the big event of firecrackers and dragon dances without thinking there was anything Chinese about it.
Me: I’m most definitely not Chinese.
Vietnam was a vassal to China—beholden—and Lunar New Year is probably one of the influences that came from that sprawling kingdom, which also donated a whole bunch of other stuff, including its ideograms. But like all things that Vietnamese have come to borrow, we have tweaked the Lunar New Year.
Take the Chinese zodiac. They have twelve animals and so do we. But they have the rabbit; we have the cat. The cat is actually a pun that plays off the similarity in sound that the word cat and rabbit have in Vietnamese…and so we have evolved our own peculiar zodiac.
This is the essence of Vietnamese spirit. If I could package it in gleaming little tins and sell it at a farmer’s market, I would name it Adaptability. “Come and get your Adaptability.” You can use it for anything. “Sauces. Juices. Preserves.”
Vietnamese Lunar New Year traditionally is a one-month wind-up, so it has a fever pitch that reminds me of Mardi Gras, Christmas, New Years—all rolled into one. It is also everybody’s official birthday…the moment all folks, no matter their true birth date, technically age by an additional year.
This is when we kill a big fat pig, settle scores, clean house. All debts come due.
When I first revisited Vietnam, I came back as an illegal immigrant at the ripe age of 21. The United States had had a twenty year embargo. And this meant that I never got to meet friends and family.
My grandparents were simply pictures to me.
So I knew what I had to do: as soon as I graduated from college, I took my savings and went on a four month trip to Vietnam—to see the alien birthplace that was so much a part of me. Of course, my parents objected. “It’s illegal,” my mom pointed out. “You could be sent to prison.”
This was not paranoia, either. My father was a high ranking officer in the Vietnamese Army and his name was still on lists. Both of my Uncles had been in reeducation camps—prisons—for almost two decades. And they were nowhere near as important as my father.
But I went anyway and, in the eyes of a young man, it made the journey seem even more adventurous, romantic. I imagined myself in a trench coat like in those black and white World War I movies. I took up smoking because I thought a match held close to the face made for great lighting in the camera that is the mind’s eye.
I planned the trip to coincide with the Vietnamese New Year—Tet—because I knew it was a big deal. And it was. It was such a big deal that Bill Clinton chose that exact event to announce that America would finally end the embargo—that we would begin full diplomatic relations with the United States—and just like that: I was no longer an illegal immigrant. I was made legitimate.
And this legitimacy was announced by the pop of fireworks that did not end for days. Happy New Year!