Philip Phu Bui
THIS WEEKEND many Bay Area Asians, among them 200,000 Vietnamese-Americans, are welcoming Tết, or New Year, which according to the lunar calendar begins Friday.
The coming year will be dominated by the buffalo, ranked second in a 12-animal zodiac that includes, rat, buffalo, tiger, cat, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and boar.
Firecrackers are going off around street corners, especially in Oakland and San Francisco Chinatown, as this welcoming New Year tradition has been passed on from generation to generation in Asia and still carried on among the overseas Asians since fireworks were invented in China hundreds of years ago. It is believed the popping sound of firecrackers will chase away all the ghosts, evil spirits and bad luck of the past year.
As a kid, I loved the sound of myriad strands of red firecrackers being ignited all over the city at the midnight stroke of New Year’s Eve. The constant loud popping was heard throughout the night and continued into the third day of the New Year. The festive atmosphere lasts several days, with lots of activities such as cultural performances, games, lion dances with Ông Điạ – Mr. Earth – and special food. People flocked to the temples to pray for the best of the coming year.
On the morning of Tết, children dress up in their new clothes and gather around parents and grandparents to wish them good health and longevity before they are given red envelopes filled with money.
It is also the time of family reunion for a New Year meal, which is considered as important as Thanksgiving dinner in the United States. On this occasion, bánh chưng and bánh dày respectively square- and round-shaped rice cakes will be served with pickled green cabbage, papaya, white radishes and red onions. Rice wine and beer are the popular drinks to consume while enjoying the food.
According to the Vietnamese legend, some 4,000 years ago, during the reign of King Hùng the Sixth, he announced that he would retire and his heir would be the son who came up with the most meaningful gift for the New Year. After months of searching and preparation, all of the king’s offspring came up with expensive diamond and gold ornaments or delicate parts of rare animals. All except the poor Lang Liêu, who prepared his gift consisting simply of rice cakes made from rice, green beans and pork, ordinary ingredients that are readily available throughout the country. His presents were bánh chưng, square-shaped rice cake filled with bean and slices of pork wrapped in banana leaves, and rounded bánh dày.
Lang Liêu explained to his father that the circle represented the sun and the square the earth. Their being together signifies the harmony between heaven and earth as people enjoy peace and prosperity under his kingdom. King Hùng was so impressed with Lang Liêu’s creativity and thoughtfulness that he chose him to be the next king.
Today, more than two million Vietnamese are living outside Vietnam, including nearly one million in the United States. Being an ocean apart from their homeland, however, they still keep their cultural traditions strong. On visiting a Vietnamese home this week, one will find branches of cherry blossoms, Tết’s popular plant, or some kind of local flowering plants decorated with red letters, greeting cards and envelopes with lucky money, as well as a couple of rice cakes and preserved fruits like coconuts, ginger, tamarinds, pumpkins, lotus and watermelon seeds, which come to the U.S. market from Vietnam, thanks to the warming up of U.S.-Vietnam relations in recent years.
Most Vietnamese are separated as the result of the war. Family members are often scattered around the globe. With the opening of the embassies in Hanoi and Washington two years ago, many Viet kieu (overseas Vietnamese) now find it easy to travel home to reunite with family and to pay homage to their ancestors during the most solemn time of the year.
Having lived in Asia and Africa, I found the Bay Area very culturally diversified and an enjoyable place to live. Here I met people from different backgrounds celebrating their beautiful traditions in various ways throughout the year. Learning from the media or actually participating in some events, I realize that whether one celebrates, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Tết, Hanukkah or Ramadan along with the materialistic aspects of the festivals as seen in shopping malls and fairs each occasion always fills one’s heart with the spirit of family-focusing, renewal, sharing, respect, community-building and commitment, which enrich our community and make it a pleasant place to live.
So, Chúc Mừng Năm Mới or Happy New Year to you and your family as I welcome the Vietnamese Tết, Year of the Buffalo, this weekend.
Philip Phu Bui is a public school teacher and a writer. He worked with the Peace Corps in Africa and United Nations in Asia.
[West County Times (Richmond, CA) – February 6, 1997]