I remember the last Tết (Lunar New Year) the year before I moved to Canada. We all knew that it was coming, that it would be my last Tết at home for a while. A while turned into ten years, but at the time we didn’t know how long it would be. We fooled ourselves thinking that it wouldn’t be long until we united again for Tết, or is that the hope that we needed to keep moving forward? The Tết that year is still fresh in my mind, the way our house looked and smelled, the way we laughed and cried together, the food we ate — because time freezes and memory is stored in an imaginary picture frame in our hearts.
Our home was decorated with fresh gladioli, golden daisies, and peach blossoms like every other year. My mom and I often joke that my dad’s only responsibility at Tết is to pick out the perfect peach blossom tree, the one with majestic-looking roots and a strong, curvy trunk as the tree represents our fortune and prosperity for the coming year. Somehow my dad nails it every single year, and he is really proud of it. That year he brought home a wild peach blossom tree, the one that you can only find in the mountainous area in the north of Vietnam. The tree was elegant with long, strong branches, fainted rose petals and countless tiny buds, and dark green leaves. He spent the whole morning planting the tree. He covered the floor with old newspaper so the dirt didn’t get all over the place and kneeled down to tend for the roots. He shook the old dirt out of the roots, ‘By doing this, the roots can breathe and take in the nutrients and stay alive with us for a long time’, he told me. Once the tree was stabled in the painted ceramic pot with new soil, carefully, he untied the string that held the tree branches together, and they sprung open like they had been waiting for this moment of freedom for a long time. The branch stretched out across the living room and the gentle scent of blossoms slowly took over the house. My sister and I would sit around the tree and admire its beauty, letting out a sigh of accomplishment even though we contributed nothing to the tree. Tết is finally home.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, my mom was in charge of the food department, the way it has been since she was 12. According to our tradition, the New Year Eve’s meal is the most important meal of the year, where you cook the most delicious food, pray to the ancestor, and gather together as a family to review the events that happened in the last year — the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful things that happened called Life. That year, my mom made boiled chicken in grilled ginger and onion, deep-fried spring rolls, vegetable soup with chicken broth, bánh chưng (a Vietnamese cake that we only eat in Lunar New Year), pickled green onions, pig ears sausage, one or two stir-fry dishes that I can no longer recall the name and what was in them, and a salad dish with fresh lettuce and tomatoes from the market. It was a full day of washing the ingredients, chopping, cooking, plating, reheating. My sister and I loved helping her out in the kitchen in preparing for the meal because at a critical moment of the year, somehow the dreaded daily cooking chore suddenly turned into a purpose: to prepare a delicious, thoughtful meal for our ancestors to say thanks for protecting our family last year. My sister was 10 at the time, so she caused more trouble than helping, and eating more than she helped cook, but I tolerated it with the rare kindness toward my sister. We fought all the time growing up, but somehow as the year reaching to an end, and knowing that I wouldn’t be around in this kitchen the year after, I let the sisterhood love fill my heart. I laughed at her silliness and goofiness knowing that she would be preparing meals like this with my mom when I left home, knowing that my parents would count on her to make the house less empty, knowing that she would eventually step up and replace me in the house without a big sister. While the food was being cooked, we prepared a banquet of fruits together and organized it in the most elegant way for our ancestors to enjoy first: green bananas as a base, and a green grapefruit on top of the bananas, then we added kumquats for the orange hue and red chilies for good luck. Sometimes we would add in dragon fruit for the pink and green colors, or any other fresh fruits that we got from the market that day. The goal is to make the fruit banquet look full, as it represents a fulfilling year that the new year brings. I didn’t know this at the time, but I love our rich Vietnamese culture and tradition more than I thought. You don’t recognize the beauty of culture until you’re left with none. You don’t appreciate your roots until you’re gasping for air under the foreign sky.
We gathered around the ancestor table and started praying. My mom memorized the script, which I tried to follow line by line but it was like learning a foreign language, so I gave up halfway. I looked up to the banquet of food, fruits, and the treats that we prepared and I started praying by whispering in my head. My mom prayed out loud for my school application and visa for Canada to go well, and that our family would have a year full of peace, love, and happiness. I prayed for my parents to stay healthy and for our family to stay together regardless of the distance. The meal was served but I barely ate. The TV was playing a special series for Tết called ‘The Afternoon of the 30th”, the kind of TV series that featured the most beautiful moments of the year, while my eyes were filled with tears. I ate the last meal of the year knowing it would be my last Tết with my family for a very, very long time. Who knew what would be waiting for me on the other side of the world? Who knew what my next Tết would be being so far away from home? Who knew how lonely it would be to be alone for Tết? We cherished my last Tết at home together and tried not to think about the future, knowing it would be a bumpy road not just for me but also for my parents. I had to learn to grow up, and they had to as well. After dinner, we sat together on the couch enjoying each other’s company, our eyes were on the TV watching a New Year Eve’s comedy show that had been on since I was born, but our hearts were filled with love in the present moment, and our heads were filled with fears — the fear that our family would never be the same when I leave home. I helped my mom stuff money into the red pocket that she would be giving out to children and elders on the first day of the year, it’s an ancient tradition that I love. I remember dressing up nicely in my best Sunday dress as a kid and smiling a lot to get as much lucky money as I can, then I would go home and hide in the corner of my room and do the math on my notebook to see how much money I got. One year I collected around $50, it was nothing to me right now but was a fortune to my 10-year-old me, I told my mom to put it in her saving account at the bank. The firework came on, the New Year was finally here. My mom made another banquet for our ancestors, this time on our balcony with a bowl of salt and rice and lots of incense. We stood at the balcony watching firework sparkling in the sky and reflecting lights on the lake in front of our condo building, taking in the calming scent of burning incense. The sky was clear and the air felt crisp, a good New Year is when the temperature is a bit chilly, because it gives us all the feels, and makes our home so much cozier. My heart sank when I bundled in my parents’ hugs, feeling like I was a kid again — wishing I stay as a kid forever.
Ten years after, I now know the answer to all of my questions that filled my thoughts that day. I now know what was waiting for me in Canada — what else but heartache and growth opportunities, a lonely, scary but exciting journey of escaping the family nest to find my own identity, a journey of solitude and maturity. I now know what Tết is like being away from home. For ten years, it pains my heart whenever I go on social media and see how my friends, cousins, and so-called influencers in Vietnam celebrating Tết weeks before the New Year comes. The way they go shopping at flower markets, making new áo dài (Vietnamese traditional dress), cleaning and decorating the house, coming home to their parents bringing with them peach blossom and kumquat trees, and lanterns, and incense, and lucky money — living a regular life in Vietnam — makes me jealous, wishing I could trade lives with them. The life that I worked so hard to build in Canada, the adventure, the success, the growth, the opportunities — here, take my life and let me go home.
My mom’s prayers came true and I came to Canada as planned. I don’t remember the years after our last Tết together, but I remembered the cold in Canada in February, walking on a snowy road one year trying to get to a local supermarket to get myself Vietnamese sausage and candied coconut when the wind chill at 40km/hr. I don’t remember sharing the New Year Eve moments with my parents through the screen of my iPhone, but I remembered the tears all these years, some years hiding under my blanket, some years running out of lecture hall to call home, or last year, running to the washroom in my office building to sneak in a cry and a Facetime before my next meeting in the afternoon. After it all, I wonder if it is all worth it. I thought that it gets easier after every year, the memory slowly faints away, but the pain deepens like a wound that is never healed. Because the wound never heals, so it hurts a little when the time comes. This year it hurts a lot more so I took the entire week off, booked a last-minute trip on Airbnb to a small town in Manitoulin Island called Little Current. My aunt made bánh chưng this year so we pick up two from her house on the way here. Snow covered the ground as I’m typing this. I cried almost every day this week and I painted peach blossom for the first time yesterday, the only way I know how to celebrate Tết.
Just a few more hours until the Year of the Ox is coming. To all the peach blossoms, the last-meal-of-the-year, all the red pockets, the firework, and my family, I miss you dearly and I wish that I could be home. My heart is with you, forever and always. Happy New Year.