The silence stood out to me the most this year. The absence of firecrackers in our front yard, drums for the lion dances, and the dozens of voices that should be yelling over one another when my whole extended family reunites for the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, otherwise known as Tết.
Every year, my family drives down to Little Saigon in Orange County, California where my grandparents and most of my extended family reside. While the Lunar New Year in California is nowhere near the scale of the celebrations back in Vietnam, we typically spend the entire weekend bouncing between households, restaurants, and plazas, checking off the long list of traditions we carry out each year.
Normally, we’d visit each of my great aunts and uncles to pay our respects, wish them prosperity and good health in the new year, and collect red envelopes filled with lucky two dollar bills, known as lì xì in Vietnamese or lucky money in English. Later in the day we might stop for some rich vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê sữa đá) or grab a bowl of phở before we ring in the new year with some games (Asian Flush was a popular drinking game last year — of course we drank Heinekens) and took part in some good old-fashioned Vietnamese gambling called bầu cua cá cọp, which literally translates to “squash-crab-fish-tiger”, where you bet on an animal and roll a pair of dice to double your money — or lose it.
The next day we would go to my grandparents’ sandwich shop, a branch of the bánh mì chain, Lee’s Sandwiches. In the parking lot out front we’d watch the lion dance and set off a string of firecrackers ten cars long. The noise from the drums, fireworks, and cheers of the crowd leave my ears ringing well after the festivities have ended, but this year, there was only quiet.
This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I had a small dinner with my dad, sister, and stepmom at our home in Oakland, California. We’d planned on wearing our áo dài, the Vietnamese split tunic dress over pants, but even those plans fell through and in the end we ate some Vietnamese food and pretty much called it a night. Beyond the unusual quiet of the dinner, the lack of family members and particularly the absence of our elder relatives was striking.
In the end, I don’t have a story of my family making the most of a bad situation. I just want to tell the story of all of the joy and festivities that usually occur and all the traditions that will hopefully happen once again. So to every Asian that celebrates the Lunar New Year, I wish you health, happiness, and prosperity. We’ll all celebrate once again, and our ears will ring for days after. Chúc mừng năm mới, happy new year!