The Lunar New Year (commonly known as the Chinese New Year) is tomorrow! I’m so excited to finally share this collaboration that my friend Joan La (A Cup of Joan) and I have been working on. Joan is an ethical, vegan fashion blogger. Her content exists in a genre somewhere between storytelling, activism, and art. Ultimate goals–I love this babe so much!
I love the way Joan expresses herself and stands up for what she believes in. I’m Vietnamese (with some Chinese, but culturally I’m Viet) and Joan is Korean. We have passionately discussed the need for a bigger presence of Asian American and persons of color in the vegan movement–we’ve both noted that vegan versions of traditional Asian dishes are not as widely known. For our CNY collaboration, we decided to each post a recipe and share interviews with our moms, to celebrate our different cultures and share the similarities. Yesss, Asian female empowerment and solidarity! I urge you to check out Joan’s post here, and follow her beautiful inspiring Instagram here–you won’t regret it.
Chinese New Year is about starting anew, making room for the future blessings to come. I actually made some lemon lavender ginger candy the other day, to represent this refreshing new energy. In Vietnamese culture, it’s customary to clean out your house by the first day of the year, and on the first three days of the year, it’s considered bad luck to sweep the house, because you don’t want to sweep out any incoming blessings. Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we all reflect on our hearts, and make room for more love, instead of shutting love out.
I try to keep this blog lighthearted, but my spirit is weary and hurting, and right now, I must express myself authentically–to do otherwise would be a disservice to the people I care about, myself, and you, the reader.
This week’s executive order banning refugees and people from Muslim-majority countries has been heavy on my heart.
My parents were refugees. I would not be here, if not for them and their sacrifices.
I have friends struggling day-to-day in refugee camps in Greece–their futures are in limbo. They are just like you and me. They want to continue their education and contribute to the world, pursuing architecture, journalism, mathematics, and medical studies…but their lives are on pause–I would gladly give them a room myself, alas, they are not welcome here.
Half of my closest friends in grad school are international students from Iran–some of them haven’t seen their beloved family in years. Imagine planning to see your dear parents, or your sister, and suddenly having that chance ripped away from you, indefinitely. How would you feel?
This ban reflects the ugliest and most shameful part of America–it is hatred, motivated by ignorance and discrimination.
My heart has been broken about the world for a long time, but this week, the harsh reality has been absolutely relentless. It can be so paralyzing, but we must resist and speak up for what is right.
When the cruelty of the world is pressing down on everyone and everything I love, and I have trouble seeing the light, I turn to my mom, the strongest person I know. Whatever terrible things may be happening in the world, she is always reminding me to do my best and reflect inward, to cultivate the love in my soul. She encourages me to find the courage to give and share that love to others, on any scale possible. That is where we find our strength, and that is how we help the world.
Below is the interview, translated and transcribed from a conversation I had with my mom in Vietnamese and English.
What does the Lunar New Year (Tết) mean to Vietnamese culture?
Mom: Tết is the new start of everything. Everyone hopes for a better year than last year. That’s why everything is red and gold, for good luck. Just forget about the old, bad luck–it’s over. They want to start something new, better. Since it’s about beginning anew, if people want to start a new diet, or start a new habit, they start at the new year.
It’s a time of celebration and people get to rest with their family. Usually the poor people in the country, they work so hard all year, and Tết is the only time they can rest, for a week or sometimes a whole month, if they can afford it. Typically, my family took off work for a week to ten days. All of the businesses are closed during Tết—if you want to get a shirt tailored or something, no one will be open. Except restaurants, they have to stay open.
On the first day of Tết, people in Vietnam mostly always ăn chay (eat vegetarian–basically vegan, actually). Because they believe that first day of Tết, if you ăn chay, it’s like you’re eating that way the whole year. It’s a symbolic way to start the new year–in a peaceful state of mind. Because they believe ăn chay is good and peaceful, but they can’t commit to it for the whole year, so they try to do it the first day of the year, at the very least–it’s also good luck to do this. For people who practice Buddhism in Vietnam, they wish they could be vegetarian or vegan the rest of the year, they wish so, but they cannot or do not want to do it. It’s much easier now to ăn chay–anyone who has a sincere heart can definitely do it, with the grace of God. I went vegetarian in 1990 (now I’m vegan).
What was Tết like in your hometown? And what was it like after you came to the states? What traditions did you bring over?
Mom: Well, school was closed, of course. Your grandma and grandpa didn’t work in fields, but they still needed to rest from their business.
On the first day of the year, we would all put on new clothes, chúc tết (exchange New Year’s wishes), and then we would go to the temple, to get our fortunes told. Afterwards, we went to your great grandmother’s house, to eat spring rolls and other finger foods–usually for Tết, you eat playful food, finger food, basically. And after that, we went back home, to gamble and eat with the family. Your grandpa didn’t allow gambling ever, but only for Tết, just for fun, in the house. I was never really excited about that, though.
Actually, the days leading up to Tết are more exciting, because of the night market. That’s what I loved most. When I was young, your grandpa didn’t let us go anywhere. He was so strict! It was like jail. We usually sat upstairs, in the balcony, watching people going to the theater and stuff, yearning to go play. He was paranoid that we would go party or misbehave—he just wanted us to stay home to study. But we figured out a way to go out–that’s a story for another time.
My best friend’s house was right next to the market. At night, we would go to the market to see everything and walk around–they were famous for selling watermelon, your grandpa’s favorite. Back then, it was so fun–we liked to sit and people watch. We would buy nước mía (sweet sugar cane juice), and bánh chuối nướng (crispy, baked banana cake). During that time, there’s a lot of food everywhere, just like the state fair here, in Oklahoma or Texas. They sold chè, bánh mì, and chuối chiên, which you know, is my favorite…they had all my favorites! I miss that, it’s a good memory. I’m glad you asked me about this. That was my favorite memory of Tết in my hometown.
And the flowers–they sell all kinds of fruits and flowers at the market—mostly yellow mai blossoms, and peach blossoms in the northern region. They sell these flowers by the branch–it’s very beautiful and interesting. Actually, the markets are open all day and all night. But at night, it’s much prettier, because they have lights all over, and each shop was under an umbrella. Umbrellas acted as dividers. So, we liked to go around and enjoy the market under all those umbrellas. Everyone was dressed very colorfully. If we have a chance, I would love to take you to see it.
It’s different here in the U.S. We don’t celebrate it as much here. On the outside, it’s just another day. It’s not as exciting. In the streets, there’s no Tết spirit in the air, like in Vietnam. Here, we just enjoy Tết inside the family. Your aunt always takes the day off, and the night before the new year, she always goes to the temple with your grandma.
We still give out lì xì–that’s always the younger generation’s favorite. Traditionally, the younger family members are expected to chúc tết (express your wishes and intentions for) the older members, and they receive well wishes and lì xì in return. But you’re expected to chúc tết elders either way, it doesn’t matter whether you get a red envelope or not. Older people always take red envelopes with them, to give to the kids. In Vietnam, the temple always had a mai blossom tree, with lì xì (lucky red envelopes with money) hanging from it. We would hái lộc đầu năm (pick money for the first of the year). Usually inside, it was like 10 cents and an aphorism. Mainly, your grandpa would give us the best lì xì—the amount he would give was always a lot! We would always wonder how much we would get.
About the recipe: this is my mom’s adaptation of a ginger soup her grandmother used to make. My great grandfather was Chinese, actually, so this soup’s roots are more Chinese than Vietnamese. It also traditionally has gingko nuts, but I could not find any that didn’t have a lot of preservatives in them! My mom changed it up by adding beets and tofu, so it’s quite different from the original, but the spicy, cleansing ginger is still there. We had fun making it together! As my mom says, “we make our own traditions.”
Also, fun fact about the bowl in the photos–my mom estimates that it’s a century old! It’s from my great grandmother’s house in Vietnam. When my grandpa came to the U.S., he brought one bowl for each of his children. My mom says it has good memories, but due to its age, she has never eaten out of it here in the U.S. She allowed me to use it for styling…and I ended up eating out of it, actually. Don’t worry, mom, I was careful. 🙂