Women unhappy staying in to cook during Tet festivities

By Hai Hien   January 28, 2023 | 03:42 pm PT
Women unhappy staying in to cook during Tet festivities
A woman is cooking in the kitchen. Photo by VnExpress/Van Dong
Phuong Tu woke up bright and early the day before Tet to prepare five chickens and several other festive meals for her family’s Lunar New Year celebrations.

According to her husband’s family tradition, the first chicken will be offered to ancestors on Lunar New Year's Eve, and the remaining four chickens will be eaten or served to guests over the next several days.

After preparing the five chickens, Tu cleaned the house and set up the altar for Lunar New Year's Eve. Tet lasted from January 20-26.

However, she couldn't sleep in like everyone else on the first day of Tet because she had to get up early to make a tray of food for another offering to the ancestors. Then she had to get clothes ready for her husband and children so they could go out and celebrate Tet in their best attire. She headed back to the kitchen again in the evening to prepare meals for the next day.

The 37-year-old woman says the second day of Tet is the busiest and toughest. Tu's father-in-law is the eldest son of the family, and he has eight younger brothers. On this day, it is customary for Tu to make 3–4 trays of food for the whole family.

She continued to spend the next few days with her nose buried in the kitchen, preparing meals for her family and guests.

"Women in my husband's family are expected to take care of their in-laws and any guests they may have during Tet. My mother-in-law is old and unwell, so I have to bear all of the responsibilities," she said.

She laments that when people get together to eat and drink on Tet, the women are always in the kitchen and the men are always drunk. She once asked her mother-in-law to cut back on the number of dishes, but she was scolded right away. The mother said that the daughter-in-law had no right to change the traditions of her husband's family.

Tu is one among many Vietnamese women who find Tet a miserable time of the year. They’re exhausted from spending every waking moment of the holidays in the kitchen preparing elaborate dinners for others to enjoy.

Thu Ngoc, a resident of Hanoi's Tay Ho District, admits that she doesn't look forward to Tet. The 34-year-old woman has to prepare mountains of food for her family and her in-laws.

On top of that, her husband is a boss at a state agency company. So she has to cook even more time-consuming dishes to impress any guests he might bring home.

"I spend the majority of my Tet in the kitchen. I can't travel anywhere, go out or enjoy Tet as everyone else does," Ngoc said.

Hoang Anh Tu, a writer, said that the main reason so many women spend the Tet holiday "stuck" in the kitchen is because of societal expectations.

While this stereotype is fading away, it is still present in many families.

"The second reason is that some women put pressure on themselves as they try to become the perfect ideal wife and daughter," he said.

Dr. Bui Thi An, the head of the Hanoi Women Intellectuals Association, shares the same point of view.

She says that women in today’s society also go to work and make money to support themselves and their families. So, they need to change their mindset and should be allowed to have fun during the holidays as well.

"Equality between men and women doesn't mean that if she washes a bowl, he also has to wash a bowl," she said. "Instead, all of it should come from sharing and volunteering so that women don't have to spend the Tet holiday stuck in the kitchen."

She says that honoring grandparents and ancestors during Tet is part of Vietnamese culture and tradition, and this practice should be kept and passed on. However, it doesn't necessarily mean that the table has to always be full with elaborate dishes.

"Tet is a time for friends and relatives to get together. As long as the spirit of the holiday is preserved, however, eliminating superfluous rituals and conventions need not compromise the integrity of the Tet celebration," she said.

Tu and Ngoc see Tet as a laborious time to work hard. For many women, the joy of Tet is found in the simple act of preparing a meal for their loved ones and watching them gather at home.

Tuan Phong's family in Thai Nguyen has kept traditional Tet customs for many generations. During the five days of Tet, the 35-year-old's family often sets the table with many dishes and burns incense to offer to ancestors.

His mother, Van, prepares Tet feasts early because this is the only time of the year all of her children who live and work in big cities come home for a family reunion. So she doesn't mind spending her whole Tet in the kitchen making food for her loved ones.

Since their mother has been cooking Tet feasts year after year, they want her to rest during Tet and order premade meals for the whole family to have for Tet.

"This year, the whole family celebrates Tet with just the ready-made food my brother and I bought. Meanwhile, I told my mom that she needed to rest more since she always works too much," he said.

However, Van felt like she lost her purpose and joy when she didn't get the chance to cook for her kids.

The Tet feast was done in less than 30 minutes since all the ready-made items like frozen spring rolls, braised fish, cold cuts, sausages and others had been purchased. All Phong had to do was put it all together.

Van spent the rest of the holiday sweeping the leaves in the garden, washing the dishes and then sitting around doing nothing.

On the fourth day of Tet, when her kids were getting ready to go back to the city, she told Phong that she wanted to make traditional food trays for the ancestors and regular Tet meals for big family feasts next year.

She said that making Tet meals for the family doesn’t feel like just a responsibility or duty, but it is also a joy that makes her feel proud and purposeful at home.

For her, the joy of preparing Tet meals lies in the fact that she is able to provide for her loved ones in a meaningful way.

Tu says that everyone has a different way of viewing Tet. Modern women may not spend much time in the kitchen, but traditional women cook sacred Tet feasts in a holy way for their husbands and children.

"For many people, standing in the kitchen and cooking dishes that everyone in the family loves is what makes them feel most at home," the writer said, adding that all women are different and none should use someone else's measurement as their standard of living.

"Everyone has a different way to be happy in general and to fully enjoy Tet in particular," he said.

An said that there are still many people like Van in modern society. But the Tet holiday isn't complete if only women cook their favorite meals for their husbands and children, she continued.

"To add additional significance to Tet, other family members should pitch in as well. Everyone should work together to celebrate the spirit of a joyful and harmonious Tet."

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