Sunday, January 25, 2009

Notes for my baby, part 5

In which Thu describes the magic of a holiday that is special to her.

In many ways, I'm extremely American - I was born here, I speak Vietnamese with an American accent (rather than speaking English with a Vietnamese accent), etc. But in one respect (well, this is ONE of the many respects) I'll happily celebrate my Asian heritage - this weekend marks the beginning of the new year, the Lunar New Year (also known as Chinese New Year or the Tet Festival), and it's a time for well-wishing, well-being, and time spent with family.

I'll be honest with you - when you're young, and you ALREADY spend every weekend with your family, the only thing that makes Tet different from any other weekend is that all the grownups in your family all of a sudden give you little red envelopes full of money. When you're REALLY young, it's just a dollar here and there, maybe five dollars, and it all went straight to your parents for safekeeping. When you get older (say, teenaged) and you have some sort of concept of what money is for and what you can do with it, you REALLY love this holiday because all of a sudden, it's more pocket money for the mall, and sometimes your relatives start giving you tens and twenties. It's pretty sweet.

I kept receiving money up until last year, because I'm unmarried and in Asian culture you're still considered a child until you're married. I'm not sure what my status is this year since, rather than being a child, I am WITH child. But by now, the money is no longer the important thing. (My family stops giving you Christmas presents when you turn 18, so 8 years later, I've stopped coming to the holidays with expectations of receiving anything, and anything I HAVE received has been a pleasant bonus.) What I love are the traditions - there are certain dishes that are made, including banh chung, which is basically a savory dish? I can't even describe it. It's a long strip of pork meat and a long tube of bean paste rolled into the center of a huge lump of sticky rice and steam-cooked. You slice it and serve it with tiny pieces of pickled vegetables. I can't even do it justice describing it here - suffice it to say that it's one of my favorite parts of celebrating the New Year.

There are also games. The adults play poker, but as a child, I would often play blackjack with my cousins using dimes and nickels, and there is a traditional game (that I don't know the name of in English, and I would suck at translating it anyway) that is kind of like roulette, but much more intuitive, where there is a large paper mat with pictures of six different things - usually a crab, a rooster, a vegetable, etc. There are also two dice with these same pictures on each side. To play, you place your "bet" (we always played with pennies) on two pictures, and someone would roll the dice, and if one or both of your pictures came up, you would get paid the amount you put down. We haven't played this game in a long time, but you can imagine, with lots of people crowded around a paper mat on the floor, it gets pretty rowdy, and it's a lot of fun. And obviously, it's not about winning money, but about having good time.

And of course, there's family. Sure we are all together for Christmas and Thanksgiving, but Tet has always been the holiday where you don't travel and you don't make plans to meet up with people you rarely see, but instead you spend it with the people who know you and love you best. You want to start out the new year, the Lunar New Year, on the best foot possible, so it's good to be healthy, happy, and surrounded by the people you love. This is something I love and embrace about my cultural heritage, however "American" I choose to be for the other 364 days of the year.

This year that is beginning now is the Year of the Ox. There is an interesting list of celebrities born in the various years of the ox, from Adolf Hitler to Nomar Garciaparra (baseball player). Mostly what I should expect from my baby is that he or she will be a great leader and an eloquent speaker, which I think are both great things.

One thing I've been thinking about a lot is the passing of my culture from me to my baby. I'm so scared that my culture will die with me. I don't speak the language very well, and I don't know much of the history of my culture, and I can't even cook the traditional dishes. My relatives are getting older now, and eventually my generation will be the keepers of this knowledge, and I'm worried that I won't really have very much knowledge to pass on. I'm the daughter, niece, granddaughter, etc, of immigrants, and everyone I know is the same, also the first generation born here. So everyone I know is in the same position I am - how do we pass on knowledge that we're not so sure we have? How can I capture this moment in time and show it to my children so that they will know exactly how it was supposed to go? Or do I create something new, a hybrid of my cultural traditions, banh chung and pasta served side by side?

I guess one thing that is great about me having a baby so young is that my family is also still young enough to help pass on our culture. I don't have to do it all by myself just yet. My grandparents are still alive, my parents are still young and healthy, and everyone lives in the same area, and we will continue to get together like this every year for many years after this baby is born.

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