Sticky rice cakes and the spirit of Tet
It is the season of Tet, a time when most of us put aside our busy schedules and wonder, “What the heck is Tet?” It is, of course, the Vietnamese New Year, a celebration filled with joy and renewal and forgiveness and family and drinking and gambling and visiting the ancestors’ graves and drinking and then more joy and renewal followed by more drinking and then some gambling. Usually in that order.
I remember the Tets of my childhood. The excitement was palpable. Everyone was in a good mood. We cleaned the house until not a speck of dust was left. Dad and the uncles would buy branches of peach and cherry blossoms and carry them home on their motorcycles, and the aunts would get together and prepare traditional foods: coconut candies, jams, and bricks of sticky rice cakes so dense they had their own gravitational field.
We kids were the happiest. Sure, the return of Spring and renewal and family, blah blah, was good, but really, all of us were developing strategic plans for amassing a profit through li xi, lucky money given in little red envelopes. Before Tet, the family would go to the cemetery to tidy up the ancestors’ graves, lighting incense for them and praying for their blessing and protection for the upcoming year. I thought it was silly, since I never met these people. Still, it couldn’t hurt. “Great Grandma,” I would pray, holding the lit incense to my forehead, my eyes closed, “please make sure I get a ton of money this year.”
Around this time, VFA prepares for the annual Tet celebration, which drew 300 people last year and was so crowded that the lion dancers basically had to stand in one place and tap-dance, which is not the tradition, but at least no one was trampled. This year, we convinced our high-school Youth Leadership Council (YLC) to plan the whole thing. We call it “leadership development,” and the kids are buying it. They designed the flyer. They are doing the outreach, the decoration, the games. They are recruiting their friends to volunteer. They worked hard before the holiday break writing a small grant to cover expenses. They are looking forward to this event.
Still, I can’t help but feel a little bit of a loss for them. Most of the YLC kids were born in the US, so they have never experienced the Tet as it should be, when the entire country is swept up by a sea of happiness. At the event, we try to replicate what we can: chocolate coins in the li xi envelopes, gambling games played with candies instead of real money, fake apricot blossoms, store-bought coconut candy. In the background, we’ll have traditional Tet songs. It will be festive. But, it won’t be the same. Even most of the staff haven’t experienced Tet in the homeland. “I want sticky rice cakes,” I say. They’re too sticky, my staff would protest, and it’s too hard to clean, and no one really likes them. They’re right, of course; it’s an acquired taste, and each year in Vietnam, hundreds of kids get bits of the cake stuck in their hair and are traumatized. Still...
I was reminiscing on Tet in the homeland when James, our Director of Youth and Community Engagement called. The kids got the small grant they applied for. I saw one of the YLC youth the next day, and he was overjoyed. This was the first grant they ever got. It was all of $840, but a huge victory for them. They are all elated. I can see it in their eyes and their Facebook postings. They are looking forward to sharing their culture.
The Tet Celebration will be this Friday, 1/20, from 5:30 to 8pm at New Holly Gathering Hall (5038 32nd Ave S., Seattle, 98118). Please drop by if you’re free, and bring your friends and family.
Maybe many of our kids here won’t ever experience what it’s like to be a kid during Tet in Vietnam. Maybe I won’t experience it ever again. We are not in Vietnam anymore. We have a new home and our traditions can’t be exactly the same as they were. I cannot continue to wish for the past. I should remember that the spirit of Tet is the celebration of Spring, of a new beginning.
Nah, I think I’ll just order the staff to have sticky rice cakes at this thing. What’s the point of being ED if I can’t get what I want?
Vu Le is the Executive Director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA), an SVP Investee. His column, “Staff, Retreat!” documents the fun of nonprofit work.