Every Lunar New Year my Vietnamese family puts an altar in front of the front door full of candles, oranges, plates of rich pork curry and pillow-like sticky rice. The tradition is part of Tết Nguyên Đán (Feast of the First Morning of the First Day) when we invite our ancestors into our homes so they can hear our prayers. My parents are Vietnamese refugees, but I was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. While growing up with our cultural rituals, I never really understood the reasons for them. For as long as I can remember, the celebrations included visiting my grandparents’ Buddhist temple in Grand Prairie, Texas, where monks ceremonially placed photos of my great-grandparents alongside the rest of the ancestors in the ward. We admired the vivid flowers and lanterns lined up in the temple courtyard and the people wearing the traditional áo dài. Then our extended family gathered at our grandparents’ house to pray, exchange red envelopes, break bread, and play a few rounds of low-stakes blackjack.
This year, however, it will be different. As in 2020, COVID-19 will cast a shadow over our normally joyous festivities. During this time of isolation, however, I reflected on how my family’s life was shaped by the devastation of the past. Tết, our holiest holiday, was never a purely happy occasion in Vietnamese cultural memory. Instead, it is a time of celebration and grief with a painful story of its own – a chapter to look to now in this extraordinary new era of loss and grief.
On January 30 and 31, 1968, the Vietnamese and North Vietnamese armies coordinated attacks against South Vietnam and its allies (including the United States). The siege, known as the Tết Offensive, fell on the first days of Tết and broke a truce that had been honored for years. The military strike claimed the lives of an estimated 30,000 Communist soldiers, wounded at least 12,000 American troops in the first two weeks alone, and lasted a total of 21 weeks. What is less documented is the physical and psychological toll the event took on survivors – including my own family.
My maternal grandparents are from Huế, a central city in Vietnam, five miles west of the South China Sea. When the Tết attacks began, my grandfather (a South Vietnamese military officer) left home to serve in Mang Cá. Communist armed soldiers interrogated my grandmother and asked where her husband and his relationship with the South Vietnamese government were. The markets are closed for weeks. The neighbors escaped the relentless gunfire and landed mine explosions, often taking shelter in their basements. My grandmother remembers doing the same with her children until a rocket destroyed their property. They moved to a nearby pagoda. That too collapsed, and in the chaos, a piece of splinter melted the knee joint of my grandmother’s leg. After a high risk operation, she was able to keep the limb. My grandmother rarely speaks of this time, but I understand that these are some of the saddest moments she has ever endured.
We don’t really have to be in the same room together to reach out and stay connected.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, my grandparents and their five children fled Vietnam to start a new life in the United States. Nevertheless, the war can still be felt in my and my family life and shapes our politics, habits and fears. The New Year always offered them a familiar structure through which to honor the family members they had lost or left behind, which became indescribably valuable in a strange land. Despite her painful past, my grandmother is concerned about how most Americans associate kt with bloodshed and war rather than what it once was: a festival of renewal, reunification and hope. We make our pilgrimage home to gather with family so that my grandparents can feel close to loved ones living and dead.