To keep or not to keep Tet?

January 11, 2023 | 04:25 pm PT
Trinh Nguyen
Many years ago, I was a fresh graduate joining the professional workforce and a keen supporter of the "boycott Tet" camp.

Tet is the Lunar New Year celebration in Vietnam and is the country's most important annual event and public holiday. Tet break in Vietnam typically lasts for 5 to 10 days, beginning one or two days before the Lunar New Year's Eve and continuing three to four days after Lunar New Year. The preparation for Tet is intensive. It includes house cleaning and decorating, cooking many Tet specialties, sweets, and snacks. During Tet, people visit family, friends, and teachers, and drink, and party. Most Vietnamese take Tet seriously, so seriously that it became obnoxious to me.

During the two weeks prior to Tet, people's minds are already busy shopping and cooking. The common work email reply is: "Out of the office." Your co-workers are excited about their extended annual leave. Some projects seem to halt forever; the delivery schedule is uncertain, and many plans suddenly need to wait until after Tet. The whole system pauses to prepare for Tet. I advocated, therefore, abandoning this time- and energy-consuming holiday. I believed that by only celebrating the calendar New Year, Vietnam would be more advanced and more productive.

After more than 10 years working and studying in both Vietnam and Canada (I now live in Vancouver, Canada where most people only have one or two days off for their New Year), I realized how much I miss the anticipation of the public announcement of the duration of the Tet holiday for that year. And I wonder, what are we all working for?

The exciting projects are endless. Success and ambition go hand-in-hand. Some people work to bring prosperity to their families; yet, "prosperity" has no limits. Some people work for their passion, and sometimes the passion swirls them away from their family before they realize it. The United States is a good example of this work-centric view.

The United States is particularly sparing with days off. It is the only developed country that offers no paid maternity or paternity leave to expecting parents. Parental leave is at the mercy of the employer. Most mothers, consequently, rush back to work as soon as they finish delivering the babies. A nine-year ethnography study of American bankers by Dr. Alexandra Michel in 2011 showed that the more successful these executives are, the more they work. One study participant shared that he must not miss a meeting even though his serious back pain forced him to lie on the conference table. The idea that hundreds of millions of people in Vietnam and other countries are willing to stop working for one week would be inconceivable to these executives.

Having the privilege to step out of the Tet fever, I can now look at this holiday from another perspective. I no longer see Tet as a burden. I prefer the Vietnamese name "Tet" to "Lunar New Year Festival" or "Chinese New Year." Vietnam, China, and several other Asian countries celebrate the Lunar New Year; each has its own characteristics.

I no longer see the week of Tet as a waste of time but as a period of slow living vital to our well-being. If we are already focused and productive, a week of holiday can only boost our productivity. If we are not productive, having one more week of working will not change much.

Tet is not a time when everyone must follow exhausting and rigid celebratory protocols, such as overflowing alcoholic drinks and food, squeezing the budget for lucky money to give children, and exhausting days visiting innumerable relatives and neighbors. Tet is not a time of "homegrown drama" when parents require children to behave in a certain way or when everyone embarks on a shopping frenzy. Tet is not a crucifixion of wives and women to be measured by cooking and cleaning. Tet especially should not be a time of vehicle accidents due to drunk driving. In sum, the waste of food or lives is not an indispensable part of Tet.

A family. Photo by VnExpress/Tam An

A family celebrates Tet. The mother and two children wear Vietnam's traditional costume ao dai. Photo by VnExpress/Tam An

I now see Tet as a special gift inherited from our ancestors. Just as we give children lucky money during Tet, our ancestors worked hard to preserve the tradition of paving a few days a year from work so their descendants will not be swooped away in the frantic typhoon of economic growth.

Let each person use this lucky gift the way he or she chooses. Let Tet be a period when the extroverts have a fantastic time partying and gathering, the introverts have their peaceful moments with their warm tea and Tet candies, the elders cheerfully wait for visits from their children, the young have time to finish their books, and the children learn to appreciate a red Tet envelope containing a sincere New Year wish rather than a high-value note.

The question is not whether to keep or to abandon Tet but rather how to celebrate it. By focusing on the value that Tet brings, Tet is no longer a burden. It is a time of harmony and synchrony between old and young, yin and yang.

*Trinh Nguyen is a doctoral student studying in Canada. She holds a Masters of Business Administration from the University of Hawaii and a Masters of Education from the University of British Columbia.

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