Why It Took Me 24 Years To Embrace My Culture’s New Year

Photo: VCG/Getty Images.
I've always had a complicated relationship with Lunar New Year.
On the one hand, it involves what's possibly my favourite tradition of all time: Every year for the last decade that we've had him, my dog has been the first living creature to cross the threshold of my parents' house on the morning of the New Year, or as it's called in Vietnam, Tết.
My parents always said that it was because dogs are thought to bring good luck (cats, on the other hand, supposedly bring bad luck), and on New Year's Day, whoever walks through the threshold of a house first will set the tone for the rest of the year.
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It's my favourite tradition mostly because it's my dog and I love him — and that's probably why it's the only one that's resonated with me. But otherwise, I've always had a hard time connecting to the holiday, and by extension, my culture.
For one thing, it's not a designated national holiday, and as a kid, I didn't understand why it would be a "real" New Year if you didn't get a day to stay home and celebrate like you would on January 1. Since my parents always stressed the importance of school and didn't want me to miss out on anything school-related, getting them to call for a day off for me, even during the most important celebration of our culture, was next to impossible.
And even if my schools ever did acknowledge Lunar New Year, it was usually referred to as Chinese New Year, even though it's celebrated by multiple other cultures. My peers were taught how to make dumplings, and to wish people a Happy New Year by saying, "Gung Hay Fat Choy." As well-intentioned as my teachers were in acknowledging the holiday, it felt like Vietnamese people weren't really part of that conversation — further adding to the myth that Asians are a monolith, that we're somehow all Chinese.
Plus, when you're a bratty kid, the most fun part of the New Year is receiving "li xi," or small amounts of money that your relatives give to you in red envelopes for good luck.
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But now, since I moved from California to New York City a few years ago and don't have a dog (or any of my family) with me, it's taken a little more work to feel connected to Lunar New Year, and my Vietnamese-American identity in general.
I've spoken to several other people of color who've described feeling the same way, that they've also started working harder to reconnect with their culture after moving away from their families. It's sort of like how I've started using the very Northern California slang term "hella" way more often after moving out of the Bay Area, as if all the things I thought I'd grown out of or took for granted have become my strongest anchors to my roots.
My parents had always been my bridge to my culture. After all, I can barely even speak Vietnamese now, even though it was the only language I spoke until I was five, until I went to school and had to assimilate as quickly as possible. Now that I'm living in New York City, almost 3,000 miles away from my parents, finding ways to connect to that part of myself has been a bit more of a journey. But maybe that's the point — that identity and culture is something you sometimes have to work for if you want to find an entry point that works for you.
Admittedly, I'm still figuring out what that looks like for me. For the past two years, it's been potluck-style dinners with friends who also celebrate Lunar New Year. And, of course, because the holiday isn't complete without my dog, I'm still finding ways to celebrate with him, even though he might hate me for sending home what he probably thinks is a festive straightjacket.
This year, I'll also be taking the day to actually take part in my neighbourhood's celebrations (I happen to currently live in Chinatown), and to really figure out which of my parents' traditions I can carry on, even when they're not here to hold my hand through them.
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