Celebrating familial love and joy: A photo-essay on Tết
Holidays have taken on a different meaning for us these past few years as twenty-something first-and second generation Vietnamese womxn. Some of us moved away from home and learned to support ourselves. Others shouldered more responsibilities and had to re-evaluate our boundaries as a form of self-care. During the pandemic, many of us sacrificed large family gatherings and public celebrations while following health guidelines and travel restrictions. Overall, it has become increasingly difficult to meaningfully celebrate holidays together with our loved ones and to consider the implications of what happens when we do or don’t.
These challenges, however, are not unfamiliar to the larger Vietnamese diaspora throughout our shared history of war, several waves of migration, and resettlement around the world. Our ancestors and communities have always found innovative ways to reunite and incorporate joy into our everyday lives during the holidays. Tết Nguyên Đán (Lunar New Year) is an especially important occasion for Vietnamese people to reflect on the past and usher in Spring, a season symbolizing rebirth.
Using photography and storytelling, the Empowered Phụ Nữ Collective and 2021-2022 Photovoice Project cohort reflected on what Tết means to us and our favourite memories of the holiday. Some of the themes that emerge include Vietnamese womxn’s roles as cultural bearers, the power of food in bringing people together, and feelings of connection to culture and family across generations.
The common thread that resonates among the photographs and stories is the healing effect of honouring traditions with our familial ties. During Tết, we remember that, no matter what’s going on in the world, or what’s changed in our lives, we are resilient and can overcome any hardship when we are together, rooted in our love for one another and in our hope for everyone’s well being.
Connecting With Our Ancestors
The lighting of ceremonial incense and candles is a way we connect with past generations. It is set at the front of any ritual and invites spiritual ancestors to visit our homes. I think of incense as a gateway that lights the way for our spiritual ancestors to move between two places - the world of their living descendants (our world) and the after-life.
When lighted, a familiar but unexplainable energy fills the room, and I have found myself feeling more grounded, at peace, and safe in the presence of ceremonial incense. Whenever I smell this, especially around Tết, I am reminded of the deep connection I have to my Vietnamese roots.
Growing up, Tết was always loud, communal and exciting. It was one of those parties where you’d wonder - will this person show up? I haven’t seen them in so long! All of the kids would crowd into one bedroom of the house and hide away from the noise. We would laugh at how loud (and sometimes, poorly attuned) our parents were when they were singing karaoke. “Is that your dad?” we’d ask each other, and then have a good laugh. These moments of connection with loved ones are as special as the meanings we hold behind the ceremonies. Incense is an important reminder to remain connected to past loved ones, as well as those who are living.
Tết is all about celebration, identity, and family. My family was never big on western holidays but when it came to tết, the house was all ready and prepped. Delicious food, lì xì, and uniting with relatives always brought joy.
One thing in particular that sparked my curiosity around new year was the prep on new year’s eve, specifically with ancestors and the altar. I never really knew what was going on until recently. I realized years had passed doing these traditions without fully understanding it. What’s important now is that we continue to pass on these traditions.
I would always have fond memories of my mom telling me to ask for whatever I wanted, standing in front of the altar, not having a clue of what I was to do, and bonding with my siblings to figure out what we were supposed to do. Now, I proudly memorize all the lovely wishes and sayings to say not only when I’m praying, but to elders, children, and eventually, future generations to come so that they can celebrate their identity – with family.
It’s often a joke in Asian culture that our parents show us love by feeding us and that is what I wanted to portray in these photos. When it comes to my connection with Vietnamese culture, the first thing I think of is family meals. On special holidays or gatherings like Tết (short for Tết Nguyên Đán meaning Festival of the First Morning of the First Day), my parents always make Vietnamese dishes that you wouldn’t eat on a normal day and that would be difficult to find at a local restaurant. Eating their home cooked meals, learning about how it’s made, the origins of the dish, and the effort put into it is what keeps us connected to Vietnam. Many of my fond memories of Tết were centred around delicious food, playing games, and being fully present with my family.
Whenever I think of Tết, I always think about the food. From the display of my favourite Viet dishes that are almost always exclusively reserved for the new year set in front of the family shrine for our ancestors to the process of making bánh chưng, Tết celebrations are synonymous with food. Growing up, I would watch the women in my family – my mom, aunt, grandmother – meticulously organize their ingredients and prepare for a long and labourious process of folding and trimming the lá dong leaves, scooping heapings of mung bean and pork filling it, tying it all together and slowly steamed for 8-10 hours.
Over the years, I’ve seen different moulds be DIY-ed together and the purchase of a bigger boiling pot as the process became more elaborate and requests came from family friends for my mom’s bánh chưng. In recent years, I’ve had the honour of learning how to make bánh chưng (depicted in the photo on a film strip). Whenever I am making bánh chưng, I feel a connection to my culture and ancestors (depicted by the photos in the background). And each Tết, when we get to take the savoury first bite after it’s unravelling I feel at home.
Among the numerous traditions associated with Tết, from dishes steeped in familial memories to the warm glow and inimitable scent of incense, one stands out: the informal but inevitable ‘safekeeping’ of our lì xì.
Amidst the excitement of celebrations, parents would promise to 'keep our lì xì safe and give it back later.'
Like clockwork, I would remember about my red pocket the next morning. A ritualistic afterthought: “where did mom put my lì xì?" Never to see it again.
As an adult, I admire the finesse and chuckle at what seems like a widely shared experience. Can't wait to include my children in this 'tradition'.
Intergenerational Experiences and Tết Traditions
My family has been fortunate to have grown and now experience Tết holistically between three generations: the generation of our parents, ourselves and our children. This is a place where our values meet and traditions are passed on. It is a time of celebration–celebrating our joys, our losses and reflecting and wishing for a better year to come. This is a time where, despite the differences in our generations, we can come together and share a moment together.
Tết is a moment where we can find peace despite what we have been through. It is a safe space where we share food, stories and culture. Therefore, Tết resembles the peace we come to find within the chaos that we and our family members have endured. It is a place where we can practice gratitude to help us let go of, or cope with, the hardships we’ve been faced with. The intergenerational trauma. Tết is a symbolism of pure love–however that may look like for each of us. For instance, love from our parents may mean providing basic needs. With that, we as the younger generation are now able to define love by prioritizing the emotional needs of others. Three generations of differences, growth and love.
Each year, my mom hands me a red envelope with handwriting that reads, “from Mẹ” to “Vân”. While I love the practicality of money gifts, I am especially grateful for the wealth of knowledge in family traditions and customs that my mom imparts onto my brother and I – by decorating our house with cây tắc (kumquat trees) and bông cúc (chrysanthemum), reminding me to do xông đất (first visit to a home), cooking thịt kho trứng (carmelized pork belly and eggs) and Bánh tét (sticky rice and mung bean cake), and connecting us to our extended family in Vietnam over Facebook to chúc tết (give new year greetings).
Tết often reminds me of the roles that the womxn in my family uphold to share Vietnamese culture with us, no matter the distance or time difference. Their efforts are clear through all the messages, photos, and videos shared in the family group chats to keep us updated, in the time spent preparing traditional dishes for us to eat, and in the stories they tell us about their Tết memories growing up.
Out of gratitude for their generosity, I often think: how do we continue to honour the cultural custodians before us and express the same love and care, together with future generations? How can we preserve the fruits of their labour?
Wearing áo dài on special occasions, like during Tết, is one of my favourite ways of reclaiming Vietnamese culture. Growing up as a shy kid, I have many memories of not wanting to stand out - for being one of the only Asian kids in the classroom, for my passion in talking about Vietnamese history throughout undergrad studies, for being chubbier than my cousins or for being curvier than the slim models featured on the calendars we get around new year’s. I was always conscious of not being enough or being too much.
But when I wear áo dài and celebrate Tết, I feel empowered and am excited to share my experiences as a second-generation Vietnamese Canadian womxn embracing her roots, in hopes of inviting people to learn more about their own cultural identities. Tết is a time for rebirth and I look forward to all the ways I will continue to grow and renew my connections to Vietnamese culture and community. This is my blooming season.
This photograph was taken for me by one of my cousins using my iPhone during a family trip to Việt Nam in 2016. It was the first time celebrating Tết in Việt Nam and experiencing all of these traditions and excitement with my extended family. In this photograph, my cousins and I are playing “bingo” with watermelon seeds. Throughout this trip I felt an overwhelming sense of love and acceptance from my cousins, aunts and uncles, embracing me like we’ve seen and known each other every day as if it hadn’t been 10 years. Tết was both vui and buồn - vui in spending more time with my family, learning new traditions, receiving and giving lì xì as their Dì Hạ, having lots of laughter, eating a lot of great food of course… and buồn, to realize that this was temporary as reality reminded me of how far we really were from each other.
I have always felt vui and buồn around Tết even back home in Canada while I was living away from family and listening to nhạc xuân would also make me homesick. Last year however, was the first time in a while that I was able to celebrate Tết with my parents since I moved back home. It also was the first time my mom and I attempted to make bánh tét and make new dishes from scratch. Tết during a time of pandemic and hate, empowered me to feel more joy and take up more space to celebrate what’s important in life with loved ones close by. Learning new and old traditions, hearing more of my parents’ stories and reading more Vietnamese folk tales this past year, has helped me feel even more connected to my parents and our culture.
My mom and I share the same zodiac sign: the rooster. In the photograph, my mom is posing in a purple áo dài while holding onto a branch of hoa mai. Behind her, is a hand painted backdrop of a rooster. This photograph was taken in 1993 at a Tết event hosted by the Vietnamese Association of Peterborough. Beneath the cut out of her silhouette, is my older sister and I posing in our áo dài’s made by one of our aunts in Việt Nam. That photograph was taken at Hội chợ Tết in 2017 in Mississauga, where I was running a booth for the Vietnamese Women’s Association of Toronto.
I have always been so curious to learn about how the Vietnamese community navigated the earliest years of resettlement, especially in a rural town. What other traditions did they grow up with that they wanted to continue here in Canada? How did they do it? Where did my mom get an áo dài in the early 80’s and 90’s? Where did they get hoa mai? Who painted the beautiful backdrops? Photographs like these remind me of the strength, resilience, and creativity of our communities to come together. Now I ask myself, in what ways will I continue these traditions in the future?