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dmp ([personal profile] dmp) wrote2010-02-09 02:00 am
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At Home We Called it Têt

Written for the Asian Women's Blog Carnival: #5 Who I Am When I'm (not) With You.


In elementary school, there was one day, besides my birthday, when I felt special. That day was the day when we celebrated Chinese New Year in class.

My mom always volunteered; I don't remember any other Asian students running the event. I know she wanted us to fit in, she was an involved parent who cared about her children's education, and she wanted us to be proud of who we are and where we come from. So I remember that every year she would go through the ritual of organizing the Chinese New Year celebrations for my 98% non-Asian class (there was always that one other Asian kid in class every year, the one whose mother didn't volunteer to host Chinese New Year's).

We took placemats from Chinese food restaurants with the zodiac signs and the occasional misspellings printed on them. We bought bags of fortune cookies from the Asian food mart in the next town over. We'd order lo mien noodles and chicken tenders and barbecue beef on sticks to carry in large metal pans. My mom made stacks of a photocopied picture book she borrowed from a library years ago to pass out to my classmates; I remember finding the yellow-colored pages years later buried in our attic, the Xeroxed wood cut illustrations undulled by time.  

Together with the teacher, we would read the book out-loud about all the Chinese New Year traditions. Reading this book, I wished I could celebrate Chinese New Year the way all the little village kids did in the book: with exploding firecrackers in the streets, stringing paper lanterns outside doorways, practicing calligraphy I didn't understand and watching dragons dancing in the streets. Instead of in a classroom with that kid who bullied me at recess flicking all of the veggies in his lo mien onto the floor, or my classmate next to me asking if I could write those same characters in the book, and whether I could write her name out in Chinese too. The best part were the fortune cookies, because that was the only time I could have more than the one I'd usually get at take-out restaurants.

And then I'd go to my grandparents house and celebrate Têt, the real New Year's. Têt consisted of making huge amounts of food that none of my classmates had: hot chunks of roast pig, snow-white vermicelli noodles brushed with a mix of oil and scallions; thin crispy egg rolls made with noodles and carrot and ground meat and mushrooms and fish sauce; sticky bánh chưng peeled from its banana leaf wrappings to reveal the delicious mound out glutinous rice, mung bean and fatty pork; the special new year's treats of dried coconut, ginger, sesame candies, dried mango, and papaya, and nuts. The aunts and uncles would talk and laugh about grown-up things and I'd play games with my cousins, sliding down the carpeted stairs on our butts, or playing hide and seek among the musty furniture, or play cards or our GameBoys. We had a zodiac that was similar to the one on the placemats, except that I was a Water Buffalo and not an Ox, and my aunt was a Cat not a Rabbit, and my brother was a Boar not a Pig. And during Têt was when we bowed to our ancestors and to the Buddha at the elaborate shrine my grandmother lovingly set up with sticks of incense in our hands. And Têt is when we wish our relatives "chúc mừng năm mới".

We didn't get firecrackers or lantern parades, but other stuff correlated with what I saw in the picture book: on occasion, I did get to see the lion dance on the weekend if my dad drove my siblings and me to the community Têt celebration several towns over and I did get red packets of lixi from my aunts and uncles, but somehow, that wasn't the same. Maybe because those village kids were what I missed and wanted; watching the lion dance with your siblings isn't as fun as running around with your recess buddies. And other differences bothered me in a way I couldn't explain back then when I was seven, eight, nine years old. Somehow, I thought Têt was a private word, a special word that my classmates weren't allowed to know because they were white and I was Vietnamese. But not special in a good way. Special in a way that would make it harder for me to fit in if they knew how different my Têt was from their Chinese New Year, from the special day I showed them. And I was confused myself over the difference, and over the years came to understand feelings I felt as a child but couldn't articulate until years later.

I can express my heritage, but only in a way that conforms to what others' expect my heritage to be.

I can "be Asian" but only in the way others think I am Asian.

To be "proud" of my cultural heritage, I have to always have to explain who I am to others who don't understand me whenever they dictate it.

To fit into the community's standards of "diversity" and "multiculturalism" I have to play the teacher, giving lessons of a watered-down, bland sort where the meaning has no real relevance to my experiences. I only show the experiences others want for me to accept, because it would be too hard, too draining, too.... show them who I really am.

I learned a new word today. Auto-exoticism (n.): the idea in which the minority culture accepts and internalizes perceptions of itself from the dominant culture. It is performance intended for consumption, it is a sign given to minorities to express their minority status. It is touting Chinese take-out (that isn't really Chinese) over your family's home cooking and tossing around fortune cookies (and those weren't actually Chinese either) and associating yourself with being "Chinese" (even though you aren't) because it made you more understandable, and calling your family's most important holiday Chinese New Year because it's a catch-phrase that everyone understands.

Because Têt is something others wouldn't understand or at least not in the way I understood it. Because when I mentioned I planned to celebrate Têt once to a fellow dinner companion she exclaimed, "Oh, I always thought that was the name of the battle, not a holiday!"  Because in college, when I was part several pan-Asian/Asian-American cultural orgs and activist groups, it was the Chinese Student Association who controlled the festivities for Lunar New Year's and named it China Night.

Now all of this might sound like I'm against the Chinese.

I'm not.

I'm just tired of pretending to be one.


epershand: Ampersand holding a skull. (ampersand)

[personal profile] epershand 2010-02-09 03:47 pm (UTC)(link)
This is a beautiful post. Thank you.
epershand: blocky green ampersand (70s ampersand)

[personal profile] epershand 2012-05-02 08:09 pm (UTC)(link)
I applaud your speedineess in deleting all the spam comments this post seems to be accumulating today!
wistfuljane: sakura and tomoyo (cardcaptor sakura) holding hands (*hold hand*)

[personal profile] wistfuljane 2010-02-10 06:30 am (UTC)(link)
Thank you for this post -- a lot of it resonates with me and here I'll share a quote of something I wrote once and a half-formed thought from another:

I moved to United States when I was in elementary school and for the longest time, United States didn't recognize Vietnamese culture [and still don't in many respects]. The New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival I celebrated were now called Chinese New Year and Chinese Autumn Festival and the food I sometimes ate were referred to as Chinese food. The stories, names and customs I recognized from my own culture and language were now changed and distorted by (white) Americans as to excluded me from the narrative and experience.

And: I'm half mistakenly recognized as Chinese than Vietnamese. [White Americans] see Asia and they think Chinese. Japanese. Indian. Korean. There are no room for me except for a war they regret and here maybe I'm better off than other Asian minorities.

The têt I celebrate is visiting temples and paying respects to our ancestors and phật; it's playing tứ sắc with my family and tiến lên with my friends; it's wishing our family vạn sự như ý in the new year. It's yours and it's mine. Thank you again for sharing it.

[Followed here from the Asian Women's Blog Carnival #5's submission page.]
viggorlijah: Jesushorse (Default)

[personal profile] viggorlijah 2010-02-10 02:15 pm (UTC)(link)
I just got back from dinner with a teacher who had gotten the school to rename Chinese New Year as Lunar New Year, given they have a large Vietnamese and other Asian cultures. A few protests, but the school agreed.

We have a mix of CNY and Tet in our household, as we are a mix of Chinese and Vietnamese.
vi: (Default)

[personal profile] vi 2010-02-15 12:32 pm (UTC)(link)
This is a fantastic post; thank you for sharing it.

It is performance intended for consumption, it is a sign given to minorities to express their minority status. It is touting Chinese take-out (that isn't really Chinese) over your family's home cooking and tossing around fortune cookies (and those weren't actually Chinese either) and associating yourself with being "Chinese" (even though you aren't) because it made you more understandable, and calling your family's most important holiday Chinese New Year because it's a catch-phrase that everyone understands.

I'd not thought about it this way until recently (thanks to privilege) - and you are so right. I'm glad you wrote about this aspect, and for giving the term autoexoticism for the general concept. (yay new words!)
ciderpress: default: woman with red umbrella (Default)

[personal profile] ciderpress 2010-02-15 08:30 pm (UTC)(link)
This is absolutely fantastic, powerful and supremely insightful. I feel similar things because expectations of 'Asian' here are mostly Chinese (and then, at times, Japanese) and you've taken apart how damaging that can be so clearly here. Thank you so much for sharing this and your voice.
glass_icarus: (john cho)

[personal profile] glass_icarus 2010-02-15 08:31 pm (UTC)(link)
Here via the Carnival. This is beautiful; thanks for sharing it!

[identity profile] 2010-02-16 06:41 am (UTC)(link)
This is beautiful and gorgeous and humbling because it makes me realize how incredibly privileged my life has been. I'm on the verge of tears, really. Your childhood experience is incredibly poignant, and you really capture the love and vibrancy of Tết in your description.

Everything else I want to say sounds terribly cliché, but thank you so much for writing this. And I only hope that some day, people will understand Tết the way we experience it—not as Chinese New Year but as a celebration of its own.
lady_ganesh: A Clue card featuring Miss Scarlett. (Default)

[personal profile] lady_ganesh 2010-02-16 12:49 pm (UTC)(link)
I only realized this year how thoughtlessly and automatically I was calling the holiday "Chinese New Year." Thank you for this post; it is indeed beautiful.
wealhtheow: Prince John from the animated Robin Hood saying "Let me tell you, internets" (let me tell you internets)

[personal profile] wealhtheow 2010-02-16 02:53 pm (UTC)(link)
Thank you so much for talking about this! I didn't know there was a word for it--auto-exoticism, I mean. I really liked this bit, "To be "proud" of my cultural heritage, I have to always have to explain who I am to others who don't understand me whenever they dictate it." and "It is performance intended for consumption," Really well said!
oyceter: teruterubouzu default icon (Default)

[personal profile] oyceter 2010-02-17 09:13 pm (UTC)(link)
Thank you for this.

(Also, ohhhhh, your food descriptions make me so hungry!)

Thank you.

[identity profile] 2010-02-21 02:16 am (UTC)(link)
I found this post via Restructure!, and I just wanted to say that it really spoke to me, on a few different levels.

Thank you. Hope it's okay if I link.

[identity profile] 2010-02-21 06:50 am (UTC)(link)
I really enjoyed this. I found the narrative very powerful, and although I am Chinese I could still identify with the attitudes you talked about, and also recognize my own part in erasing people's identities. As an example, at our school we call the festival Lunar New Year, and this past Friday we had the school dining hall make food for Lunar New Year, but most people brainstormed Chinese dishes, and the head sponsors had to remind us that Lunar New Year was not just Chinese New Year, and that we had to have food from other cultures as well.

I was wondering, have you ever talked to your mother about this? Why she volunteered to celebrate Chinese New Year? I was also wondering if I could repost part of it on my own journal. (and then link to the rest of it)

Thank you for sharing your story.


[identity profile] 2010-02-22 03:41 pm (UTC)(link)
Thanks for writing this. I think this situation comes from being a minority (Vietnamese) within a minority (Asians). I'm Chinese, and I always wondered how white people could tell I was Chinese, since I myself cannot tell if other Asians are Chinese. Now I realize that they were probably guessing.

I'm Chinese, but people tend to think I'm from elsewhere, that the elsewhere is the PRC, and that I speak Mandarin. These are wrong in multiple ways, since I was born in Canada, my parents are from pre-handover Hong Kong, they speak Cantonese, and my ancestors have never been part of the PRC. Of course, I don't explain all that, I just say that I don't speak "Chinese", never challenging their other assumptions, because it's not worth the energy.

I also see some foreign-born Chinese Canadians performing Chinese-ness for non-Asian people. For example, when a white relative visited my parents' place, my dad performed super-stereotypical Chinese-ness, even when he doesn't act like that normally, or ever, before that day. My dad was telling the white relative what he wanted to hear, to entertain the white guest. The white relative was obviously interested in our exotic-ness, because of his questions about Chinese culture. (The white relative is our in-law and has been married to a Chinese woman, my blood relative, for several decades. However, he thinks of her as the exception to her ethnicity, obviously, and none of that my-wife-is-Chinese stuff had made a dent in his stereotypes about Chinese people.)

Another person was a Mandarin teacher who I interacted with when I tried to learn Mandarin. Most of the class was white, but she had a Cantonese accent, was probably originally from Hong Kong, and performed being the expert on Mandarin and mainland China. She made a lot of generalizations about "Chinese people" from meeting some people in China to her white-majority class, and I think the pressure came from her role as the teacher and how she's supposed to dole out Chinese wisdom and generalizations. Some of it was like, "Chinese people say the most important thing last", but Western people "say the most important thing first". At the time, I had really hoped that the white people would understand the nuances enough not to assume that I did all those things she said "Chinese people" did, but now I think that hope is unrealistic.
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[personal profile] cadenzamuse 2010-03-18 03:16 am (UTC)(link)
Thank you for sharing this.