Many moons ago, I lived with a local Vietnamese family and taught English in Ho Chi Minh City. For my first celebration of Tết, I learned a few customs for attracting luck — sweep your room, adorn family altars with fresh fruit, and wear red.
Less clear, however, was what to do when my host mother believed that I was not only unlucky, but a ‘bad omen’.
“Do you have plans for the end of Tet?” my host sister, Mai, asked me lingering in the doorway of my bedroom. This weekend was the last of the month-long festivities for the lunar new year.
“I know it’s supposed to be a big celebration,” I said, my bed a nest of books and papers. “My students have been asking me all week about it.”
She grinned, her voice cracking as she laughed. Her long, black hair fluttered. “Do you have plans?”
“I don’t know,” I said, not sure what she was getting at. “What are your plans? I’m open to anything.”
“My mother and I are going to Can Tho.”
“That sounds good,” I said. “I’d love to get out of the city.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head slowly, smile all but gone.
“Uh — so I can’t come with you?”
“My mother believes that Tet has to be perfect or the rest of the year is bad luck.”
“O-kay…” I said, stretching the syllables as my mind raced.
Behind large, round wire-frame glasses, her eyes darted up and down. “I’m sorry but my mother thinks that you’re bad luck and she doesn’t want you here for Tet,” she said finally.
“I’m sorry!” Mai yelled. “She has crazy things in her head!” Exasperated she looked at the ceiling before her eyes fell to the floor.
The street noise filled in the silence. I heard a man’s voice, throaty, dipping and weaving. It sounded like he was asking, demanding why?
“I guess I’ll figure something out — maybe get a hotel for the night,” I said, trying to be helpful. Mai spoke English well and her laugh was infectious. She was fifteen years old and I felt protective over her, sisterly. She didn’t deserve to feel guilty about her mother. I wanted to spare her the same feelings I had at her age.
Getting a cheap room in a hostel for a night wasn’t the worst plan. I’d wander the city, go to a bar, strike up random conversations with strangers. Relax and be myself. Ever since the van picked me up from the airport, and swept around the fountain, Ben Tham Market, and the opera house, I had the urge to explore. But my days were filled with preparing for classes, getting paper squared away with the school, and the occasional polite conversation over exactly two cups of tea. I wanted to have a beer and go dancing. Divulge all the things circling my head to anyone who would listen. Teachers didn’t go out drinking or dancing, I was told. This applied even more to the female teachers. I had to be home before dark, before Mrs. H and rolled down the gate, locking us all in as if a certain threat lurked at nightfall.
I was already trying to move past the the sting. What was Mrs. H thinking? What had I done to make her think I was a bad omen?
“Do you want to be our special guest, with me and my family for Tết?” Cao said, looking up from the bowl.
“Mai told you?” I said before spooning another chunk of grilled banana. When I came down the steps, I had seen Cao and Mai talking at the door. I should’ve known they were plotting to help me.
We were at a food stall Cao had been raving about, sitting in the in the shade of a small park on the elbow of a relatively calm street. Cao was a junior at the high school where I would be teaching, and befriended me, wanting to practice her English. We had ordered two bowls of grilled banana swimming in creamed coconut, sweetened condensed milk and tapioca pearls. It was ridiculously good. A huddle of pedicabs lounged beneath a stand of trees, smoking and chatting. Two napped with their hats over their eyes. I was feeling better just getting out of Mrs. H’s house. But talking about Tết reminded me there was something unresolved that I would have to figure out. I didn’t want to think about it, and instead just watch the vendor, a woman who worked quick and efficiently with her neat portable grill and gas tank. When customers approached she whipped around and unfolded small plastic tables and pointed to the stack of plastic stools. When the sticky, searing smoke from the grill floated over to us, I couldn’t help but wonder how she tolerated it. I had thought of myself as someone who liked hot weather, but with the humidity — and everything else — I was learning heat was something I couldn’t handle well.
“Yes, Mai told me,” Cao said, focusing me. “Would you like to be our guest?”
“Of course. I’m honored. But are you sure it’s OK with your family? Did you even get a chance to ask them?”
“Mai and I spoke in school the day before — so yes, I asked my family and they said they would be very happy to have you as a guest.”
“Ok,” I said, trying to push away doubts I had of her sincerity, a seed of insecurity planted by Mrs. H’s rejection of me. I didn’t want anybody’s pity.
“But are you really sure? I mean, it sounds like it’s important that the celebration is family-oriented — and perfect.”
“No, no. My dad is a policeman,” Cao said. “He doesn’t believe in superstitions, that you will bring bad luck to us. My family is happy to have you as a special guest. He doesn’t think you can bring bad luck to anyone.”
“And I don’t think you can bring bad luck to us either,” she added.
Cao’s kindness was genuine. I was humbled by it. But I also made a mental note of the fact that Cao’s father was a Vietnamese police officer. Weren’t these the Cong An, the guys in the green uniforms that knocked at your door and carried you off to what could become indeterminate prison sentences if you were suspected of seditious bad-mouthing or thought crimes against the government? My last experience with the police — getting kicked out of the Mr. Huynh’s house for being in a district not allowed for foreigners — made me nervous. I looked at my bowl, wishing I had more grilled banana and that the sweetness of this moment could stretch and stretch, erasing everything else.
Cao picked me up in the morning. She lent me an áo dài, the high-necked dress with two slits on the side and a pair of flowing pants. With her mother, brother and grandmother we toured the streets around her house glinting in red and gold decorations. The smell of sulfur lingered from firecrackers that whistled and popped all around the neighborhood. Children jumped around waving sparklers, parents smiling and watching close. Drumming drew us to lion and dragon dances, crowds radiating around them. Store windows boasted bright signs shouting Chúc Mừng Năm Mới! and yellow flowering trees. From their branches hung red envelopes of lucky money. It reminded me of how my mother always decorated the Christmas tree with holiday greeting cards or photos perched on the pine-needled branches. This is where she got from — what, until now, I had considered just another one of her quirks.
At a Buddhist temple, the monks encouraged visitors to play a fortune game. Following Cao, I tossed on the ground two small, crescent shaped wooden blocks; how they landed implied whether my heart was honest. One landed up, the other down. Seeming satisfied, the monk then instructed me to shake a container of hollowed bamboo filled with slender sticks. One sifted out with the number 99. The monk looked surprised and spoke with a serious tone. Cao’s told me it meant I was lucky. Right then, I wanted Mrs. H to see me, triumphant with bamboo stick number 99, luckiest of them all!
After, we returned to the apartment where Cao and her mother arranged at least a dozen different small plates on a dining table. I watched in amazement at how, once one plate was finished, Cao’s mother cleared it away and returned with another, no two the same. She pushed the small bowls my way, suggesting I try each one. The flavors were as tantalizing as the colors and aroma. Pickled zucchini and radish in oil and garlic. Steamed mustard greens with a salty, citrus glaze. Bright yellow pancakes with shredded coconut for dipping into bowls of golden nước mắm with green and red chilies. Buttery breaded fish with chives, small slices of garlic like polka dots on a slab of crispy and tangy broiled fish. Large bowls of white rice filled the room with the earthen scent of jasmine. The altar with photos of Cao’s great-grandmother and father stood in the middle of the salon where we ate, adorned with fresh flowers, bowls of rice and stacks of citrus.
Cao’s father sat at the head of the table, smiling easily as he snapped up pieces of each dish. For a few moments, the only audible sounds were a flurry of clicks from chopsticks, as Cao’s family deftly transported morsels from plate to bowl to mouth.
“How do you like Vietnam?” Cao’s father asked. Everyone looked at me, the waltz of chopsticks quieting.
“Toi thit Viet Nam,” I say, using the few words I knew. Cao and her father smiled, giving me faith that I was at least intelligible. He asked if I’ve been to the beaches or planned to travel.
“I want to go to Nha Trang,” I said, trying again to use Vietnamese. Cao clarified. I paused about whether to tell him about the plan to go to the highlands after Nha Trang. I didn’t know what he’d think, or whether he knew it was a territory where foreigners couldn’t travel without government permission.
“Aren’t you going to try to find your family, too?” Cao asked me. My head snapped in her direction; I wasn’t sure I wanted to discuss this.
But a part of me wanted to know how her father would react.
“Yes, I am planning to find my mother’s family.” The table leaned in, waiting for Cao’s translation as she casually selected a morsel of fish and greens for her bowl. In contrast, I barely breathed, monitoring every facial twitch or hint of a reaction. Her father straightened, eyebrows furrowed before relaxing. He spoke to me, his expression even.
“You’re mother is from Vietnam?” Cao translated. I nodded. Ahhh, he said. Her mother and grandmother nodded, with quisical yet approving smiles.
“Where in Vietnam?”
I explained to Cao what we had already spoken about: that my mother was ethnic minority from the central highlands. Montagnard. Hill tribe. She translated. They looked at me, and resumed eating, quietly. Cao turned to me and explained they weren’t familiar with the hill tribes.
Cao recounted to her parents what she had learned about the Montagnards when she was an exchange student in America. Vietnam veterans in Oklahoma had peppered her with questions about us. They explained to her who we were, the distinction from the Vietnamese stark in their minds. In Vietnam students were taught a different story about the ethnic hill tribes — assuming they were taught anything at all. Her father’s face remained placid, as if he was absorbing information for the first time, too. I tried to breathe.
He looked at the ceiling, nodding. Then at me before beaming and wishing me luck finding my family.
“It’s a very good thing to do!” he said.
The next day, sitting on the back of Cao’s moped as she drove me to Mrs. H’s, I watched the the red and gold decorations blur past as I contemplated what to believe. What of luck and omens? The good or bad? What of the things I read versus the people I met, like Cao’s father?
What if on the first day of the new year, your mind was a knot. I didn’t know what to believe. Was that fated, too?