It’s hard to believe where a whole year can take you. A year ago, I never thought I would end up petting a tiger in Thailand . . . but life has all sorts of ways of surprising us.
A year ago I sat in a small Vietnamese restaurant in upstate New York, bundled in my token wool sweater, parka, boots and hat (fur ear flaps included) after navigating through a blizzard and single digit temperatures that I had become all too accustomed to after three years of Hamilton winters.
Exactly a year later I found myself frolicking through the beaches and crystal clear blue waters of Thailand.
The common thread between these two events? Tet, or the Vietnamese New Year was in full swing at both these times, and being able to view the celebrations from both the U.S. and Saigon tell a trying story about the challenges of leaving a life behind in order to pursue the “American dream.”
I sat awkwardly in the Vietnamese restaurant last year, attempting to make some form of progress on the coconut drink I ordered but found the copious amounts of sugar unbearable, given that I was not accustomed to the Vietnamese obsession with sugar. I felt like a complete outsider, as I was the only white person in an entirely Vietnamese restaurant whose inhabitants had desperately tried to incorporate traces of their home in Vietnam into their surrounding space. There was a TV placed in the corner where hoards of Vietnamese movies lay beside it, posters of famous Vietnamese pop stars on the walls and the menus and notices were all written in Vietnamese.
I was scouting for someone to interview for my senior thesis, which I was writing about Vietnamese immigrants’ assimilation patterns through food culture (this topic gave me the wonderful excuse to spend my days eating my way through Vietnamese restaurants). Little did in know that half way around the world, Vietnam was preparing for their biggest celebration of the year. Tet, or Vietnam’s New Year, was in full swing with schools, offices, street stalls, clothing stores, supermarkets and banks closing down for over a week, while flower markets took over parks and envelopes of “lucky money” were exchanged among friends and family. From my experience living here, I never thought this city could actually shut down, but as I breezed through traffic I looked at the quiet streets in awe. Everyone was gone.
Time to ship off to Thailand to welcome in the New Year.
Sitting on the beach, I thought about the man I interviewed a year ago and how he came to terms with missing this celebration. Sitting in the blizzard, instead of the sun, this man Anh sat alone eating a special box of traditional crystallized candy, which he complained of costing an expensive ten dollars (it’s equivalent would cost about $1.50 in Vietnam) while his family and friends were feasting and celebrating for days half way across the world.
In my thesis, I wrote:
When I asked Anh how he planned to celebrate the New Year at dinner time, he stated that he would eat dinner at the restaurant like he normally does; there would be no large social gathering or planned event to bring social networks together. Unfortunately, Anh’s dire economic situation limits his capability to indulge in the culture that he remains so attached to. Self-employed as a community handyman, Anh’s constantly talked about his struggles with money, highlighting the typical Vietnamese immigrants’ lack of economic capital. That one tin of candy was Anh’s entire celebration for the year.
Furthermore, Anh emphasized:
“I will make $300 one day and none the next. It is very hard. Every New Year I receive $100 form my father . . . I always look forward to that. I like that I can choose when I want to work and when I don’t want to – but the money is not constant. I am always thinking about it.”
So as I sat on the beach celebrating my own second chance for new beginnings and goals I also thought about what the past year has brought me and what I have the potential to create this year. I thought about Anh sitting up in Utica all alone with his tin of candy looking out at the snow and hoping that this year he has someone to celebrate with. I send him all the best.
So here’s to another new year, chúc mừng năm mới everyone!