Memory of Tet


Right now, outside, fireworks and firecrackers explode in the air. It’s Tet again. It’s here after so much anticipation. Incense burning, monk praying (years ago, it’s monk-burning and napalm exploding).
Back then, my parents and the nation prayed for peace. Now prosperity.
The economy did not do well this past year. That translates to a lot of migrant workers staying around in the cities, unable to afford their annual trip home.
Still, people washed their hair, their bikes, their houses and even the mannequins.
The old is all washed away to make room for the new.
Children grow and old men died. I read an article about a 88-year-old man, still climbing coconut trees with machete dangling on his side to cut down his daily yield.
Keep shaking the proverbial tree, but Vietnam still hangs in there tight.
My parents used to make me clean the house, the silverware, Tupperware and anything in between.
Glad to be of service.
Kids get new clothes, and li-xi (lucky money).
We were allowed to gamble for fun. Everyone in the neighborhood was in a good mood. After all, it’s Tet.
Debt and dispute are temporarily put on hold. The neighborhood five-and-dime general store-owner visited our home, on her customer-retention route.
Now we get McDonald and soon, Wal-Mart to join Starbucks, Burger King and KFC. It will be a different kind of buying experience e.g. fast-foods, fast greetings (I doubt that those workers in uniform will ever visit you during Tet).
You can tell Tet is here: flowers and flags, drum beats and rising prices.
My parents would pen their poems and read to each other while making sure I get home before midnight, for fear I would be the first person entering the house on New Year. We got to wait for a respectable uncle to come the next morning, always early, every year, like clockwork, on his bike and dressed in bow-tie, to bless our house.
It’s a collective society. I am my parent’s son, brother of my elder siblings etc… always in an ecosystem that was preordained.
Vietnam got its past alright.
But it experiences fits and starts on the path to modernization, with add-ons like Christmas and Western New Year, Valentine and Halloween.
No Thanksgiving ( Only the Vietnamese American expats in District 7 would celebrate that.)
Tet renews the spirit of optimism, that our best days are ahead. It’s both traditional and radical, adapt or die.
So much preparation was put on for the three days: from sticky-rice cakes (which won the first prize: the throne. Our first “less is more” design)
to fermented onion and bean sprouts. Stores are closed. Service workers are sons and daughters too. So they have to be home, wherever and however far that may be.
(see my other blog on The last train home.)
Railway or highway, people are on their way home. Where once again, like a line in Green Field, their hearts are no longer on the roam.
Tet reshuffles and resets the whole deck of cards. It gives us another chance. A shot at life. Hope anew, and nightmares at rest.
Memory of distant Tet is that of war. Today, the only pursuit is that of happiness, with intensity unmatched elsewhere. And the yearning to join and be connected to a larger world. Trans Pacific or Trans Continental.
No more an island, but an identity and a player on world stage.
Young workforce, young families with lots of aspiration and perspiration.
Tet gives everyone a new start.
I should by now have forgotten about distant Tet. Only a small fragment once receded in the back of my mind. Of loving parents who nudged me on to life-long learning and the love for music and literature (Chopin, Maugham and Maupassant, Hemingway etc..) and drilled “nhan hau” (paying forward) and humanity into me.
Voila. Years have passed. The theatre of war has moved on.
Soon, even Afghanistan will be just a bad memory. But being who we are, creatures of conflict and dysfunction, chances are death will continue to claim more lives through war.
But not here and not now. It’s Tet. We pray for peace, and prosperity.
For the nation and the world. For people who hurt us and people who help us. And I, memory keeper, cannot stay unaffected.  I am going to put some money in those red envelopes to give out tomorrow to my favorite kids in the neighborhood. Keep paying forward, since I have received plenty in my time. Tradition is something that has been tested time and again. It seems to be working, at least for the billions who recognize this day as special and sacred. Let hope and optimism reign in their hearts.

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