Lunar New Year: Holding Onto Cultural Identity

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“It’s not about me. It’s about how you present yourself,” my mother told me on the car ride to my aunt’s house. In her firm yet evidently irritated voice, she was scolding me and my brothers about how we should have dressed up nicer for Lunar New Year. She was wearing her traditional ao dai dress, and my dad wore his suit. We wore our normal school clothes.

On one hand, we should have known to dress nicely. Lunar New Year is the most important holiday of the year for our family, not only because it’s tradition but because it’s the one day where all of us clear our schedules to go see our loved ones. On the other hand, if it’s about family and tradition, then what you wear shouldn’t matter. In fact, everyone we visited that day wore their normal clothes. My parents were the odd ones out.

I argued to my mom that she should have made what she wanted from us clearer. Communication was the problem. But she ignored my claim. “You should have known better.” After a couple minutes, we dropped the subject.

This could easily turn into a conversation about how my mom and I don’t always have the best relationship because of our cultural differences. We grew up differently, therefore we think differently. And while this is in many ways true, I’m going to save that subject for another time.

Rather, I’m going to give it to my mom and say this: I don’t know enough about my own culture, and that’s disappointing.

I say that because originally, this article was not supposed to be a delineation of my personal — and hopefully relatable — problems, laid out in a coherent manner despite its messy and unpleasant reality. It was going to be about how people tend to recognize Lunar New Year as Chinese New Year. In the process of writing, I found myself looking up Lunar New Year to learn more about its origins and significance, when I should have known these myself. I tabled the idea, realizing that I didn’t know enough to write about it. Not to mention, my view was quite simple: I celebrate Lunar New Year and I’m Vietnamese, not Chinese. I also have many other friends who celebrate it, and are not Chinese. By that logic, people should stop associating the holiday with only one Southeast Asian country.

That point aside, my lack of knowledge has only brought to light other insecurities. I don’t really know why my mom puts certain fruits and baked goods on the altar and prays on New Year’s Eve, or why my grandpa burns a special, decorative paper resembling ancient money around New Year’s in his backyard. Although I can speak, read, and write in Vietnamese, I’m not much better at it than a 10-year-old Vietnamese native. In fact, I tell my grandparents the same thing every year when they give me a red envelope: I wish you good health, joy, and longevity. I don’t know how to wish them much else, and I’ve had that script memorized since I was eleven.

Because of this, I feel like a fake. I’m a Vietnamese-American, but sometimes you might as well get rid of the hyphenation and just say that I’m American. I don’t say this to suggest that being simply an American is a bad thing — it isn’t at all — but that it can be sad when you were raised to be something else, too. It feels like losing a part of yourself.

The only comfort I have is the fact that I know a lot of other Vietnamese people in my generation struggling with the same problems. Of course, there are also plenty of people my age who could pass for natives if they were to travel back to Vietnam. But for many of us, despite how much we try, we find ourselves silent at the dinner table while our elders speak fluently in our native tongue. We only know our traditions through a film of childhood memories, wherein our parents at one point tried to explain our culture to us but we were too young to understand or appreciate it. We grasp at our origins, which are metaphorically and physically thousands of miles away from us.

A lot of us tell ourselves that we will learn. We will take Vietnamese language classes and regain the same fluency we had before we entered grade school. We will listen to our parents more and learn about their backgrounds and beliefs. We will recapture that lost part of ourselves, because we’re good children despite the way our old-school parents might see us.

But between school, work, and balancing other personal relationships, the ones we have with our parents and our culture are simply not pressing enough to keep our attention. It’s hard to admit, but that’s the reality.

Here’s the part where I’d normally offer real and practical solutions, but I honestly don’t have any good ones. I can only tell you what I’m doing: I’m holding on. I hold onto the words I still know. I hold onto the fact that for the next three weeks, I’m going to see my family every weekend to celebrate the New Year. I hold onto my parents and my grandparents, who are still here and willing to tell me their stories. I hold onto what I have left of them and my culture, because these are also parts of me.

Michelle Bui is a second-year biological sciences major. She can be reached at mkbui@uci.edu.

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