Celebrations and Considerations

Sunday, February 18, 2018 - 7:42pm

Elizabeth as a child

Elizabeth as a child Buy this photo
Photo provided by the author

It is Feb. 16 at the time I am writing this. To some of you, today will have been just another Friday. To me and others, however, today is New Year’s Day, a time not only for festivities, but also reflection. Recently, the political correctness of “Chinese New Year” has been called into question, and I wanted to take this opportunity to share my thoughts on the issue and explore its relation to my own identities.    

Let us travel back about 13 years to a Midwestern elementary school, where my first-grade class received a “cultural lesson” on Chinese New Year.

In reality, this meant learning a couple sayings in Cantonese, folding red envelopes and snacking on fortune cookies. Many of my classmates started turning to me as if to seek some sort of confirmation; I suppose it was because I was the only Asian-American in the room. To their surprise, I vehemently denied any previous involvement with the holiday.

“I celebrate Vietnamese New Year,” I insisted.

At first, the Vietnamese and Chinese New Years may not seem too different. They usually begin on the same day because they are both based on a lunar calendar, which the Vietnamese adopted from the Chinese. Millennia of cultural exchange have also led to similarities in celebratory activities, such as giving pocket money to children and watching lion dances. If you look beyond the surface, though, you will see there are traditions unique to each culture. For example, eating sticky rice cakes (bánh chưng) is a distinctly Vietnamese tradition, one that is tied to the ascension of Prince Lang Liêu.   

Several Asian cultures have a Lunar New Year, though the exact time varies. There’s the Korean Seollal, Mongolian Tsagaan Sar and Tibetan Losar, just to name a few. Jewish and Muslim holidays are based on a lunar calendar, too.

The term “Chinese New Year” becomes problematic when we fail to realize there are non-Chinese peoples who celebrate their own versions of the Lunar New Year, some of which have no historical ties to China. I acknowledge that China has made major contributions to the cultures of its neighboring countries, but I believe referring to the New Year as “Chinese” across the board asserts Chinese dominance, while ignoring the incorporation of local customs. It reinforces the false view of Asians as a monolithic group. In the process of dispelling assumptions about who I am and the cultures to which I belong, I feel it is necessary to specify that I celebrate Vietnamese New Year.       

But of course, there are complications.                       

It has been pointed out to me that I don’t use any cultural markers when referring to Jan. 1 — I just call it “New Year.” Doing so suggests that this New Year is the norm, yet I have always celebrated both Jan. 1 and the Vietnamese New Year with the same amount of familiarity. I manage to other-ize half of the traditions in which I participate. I think this is an unavoidable consequence of trying to express the Vietnamese part of my identity through the English language. Lunar New Year is known as Tết in Vietnamese, which simply means “beginning of the year,” but because English-speaking countries celebrate the beginning of the year on a different day (as determined by the Gregorian calendar rather than a lunar one), it becomes necessary to distinguish between the two New Years. Since most people in, say, the United States will assume I’m referring to Jan. 1 when I speak of “New Year.” It becomes almost natural for me to place the cultural marker on New Years that begin any other day.

It is a strange situation because it seems as though I am feeding into the perpetual foreigner syndrome on one level and going mad with political correctness on another. Even the labels I have chosen for myself don’t quite offer sufficient explanations. The part of me that ends up as the “Other” depends on the language I am using. It is just as true that my American side sounds foreign when I speak of it in Vietnamese. Certain concepts behind American traditions don’t exist in Vietnamese culture, so it is hard to directly translate.      

To be honest, I am not sure what the solution is. Perhaps my best option is to make do with what I have until I discover ways to express some of my identities without undermining the rest.