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Yes, We Do Get Free Money: A Reflection on Asian American Traditions for Lunar New Year

You ever get that feeling of dismay when you realize that at some point in the future, you and your siblings will be in charge of all the family gatherings? Perhaps you’re already at the point in your life where you have been thrust into that existential responsibility. If so, you’ve surely pondered over what traditions or family quirks you want to pass down to the next generation.

Representing my Texas roots

For some families, it’s as small as Sunday movie night. For others, it’s a ski trip in the Rocky Mountains. For many Asian cultures, the tradition of Lunar New Year stands above the rest. Marked by the first new moon of the lunar calendar, this vibrant and festive time of year is celebrated not only by China, but also by neighboring South Korea, Viet Nam, and Singapore.


Back in my family’s motherland of Viet Nam, you can expect an extended vacation from work as you celebrate with family under a night sky illuminated by fireworks and echoing with the beating of drums. In the Asian diaspora communities in America, you can see much of the same thing (minus the extended vacation, though)! Ask your Asian American friends who celebrate Lunar New Year about it and, chances are, they might nostalgically recount their run-in with a massive dragon that gobbled their spare change and the moment they swore they were the richest person in the world after collecting twenty red envelopes. That being said, I think the best part about Lunar New Year is the particular differences in traditions between each country, community, and even each family.

That being said, I think the best part about Lunar New Year is the particular differences in traditions between each country, community, and even each family.

In my Vietnamese family, we celebrate Lunar New Year, or Tết, with traditional dishes and a whole lot of superstitions. The night before, we’ll re-park the family car so that the hood is facing away from the house and towards the North, our family’s lucky cardinal direction. In addition, I have a haircut appointment coming up a few days before Tết because getting your haircut the month after Tết symbolizes shedding away your prosperity and good luck. And don’t even think about wearing black or all-white to a Tết party. Both black and white represent death and somber, themes you should avoid during the festival of lights and good fortune.



These superstitions aren’t necessarily shared by other Asian families or even other Vietnamese families. But that’s what makes it so special. We’re all bonded by this shared time of celebration yet our families each do things that make us unique.


There is one tradition that I left out from before, though: the red envelopes. In order to receive these decorative paper vessels filled with cash, you first have to say a blessing to your elders. Not just your parents, but also your grandparents, your aunts and uncles, and, get this, even your older cousins. Some of my most embarrassing memories come from my attempts in broken Vietnamese to say a blessing to my grandparents. Frankly, part of me is still nervous about doing it this year, and I’m twenty-one. But as cringe-worthy as the attempts to say the words happiness and good health in Vietnamese are, as much as I understand my younger cousins’ pain of having to now say blessings to me, this isn’t a tradition I’m willing to leave behind. Sure, the inevitable call to the living room to begin the rounds of blessings will always elicit groans from the second and third-generation Vietnamese Americans in the house, but it’s an important part of our family’s legacy. Saying your blessings and collecting red envelopes is a way to welcome prosperity and good fortune. At the very least, it’s just something nice to say.


Contrasting with long-held traditions you want to pass down, there are also sometimes new traditions you want to begin. For many of us, it’s usually about balancing the Asian and American in Asian American. We seek to honor our unique intercultural heritage by incorporating both aspects of Asian and American, not as contrasting, but as complementary aspects of our identities. My family’s yearly trip through the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas is a great example of this. The pictures with the autumn leaves, the boots and hiking poles, the escape from the city to spend time in nature. Seems like a pretty American family tradition to me, don’t you think? And that’s the beauty of it. Being alone in the forest among the trees brings me just as much joy getting money in those little red envelopes. My family and I are just as Asian-American in either context, and living all these different traditions is what makes our lives more unique, and dare I say better.

My family and I are just as Asian-American in either context, and living all these different traditions is what makes our lives more unique, and dare I say better.
That's my sister, and that's me in the background.

That said, there is still one American tradition that I wish more Asian-American families would adopt: going to the voting booth. It’s not just your family, it’s also mine. Even with record-high voter turnout in 2020, the average American voter turnout still stayed below 60%. For most of their lives in the US, my parents never even voted in presidential elections. Like many of our parents and grandparents, they didn’t feel it was their place to engage in the civic discussions of their new homes. This all changed in 2016, which started a new tradition in my family that continues today. In fact, the first time that I ever voted was in the 2018 midterms, and you can bet that as I cast my ballot, my parents were right by my side casting their own. Through incendiary and turbulent times, my parents found power in their voice, and voting was their way of using it. Just as importantly, they wanted me to be a part of it.

Through incendiary and turbulent times, my parents found power in their voice, and voting was their way of using it. Just as importantly, they wanted me to be a part of it.

Similar to my parents finding purpose in civic engagement, Bluebonnet can seem like an anomaly to most Asian communities. For many diaspora Asian families, voicing your political opinion is a white American tradition, not an Asian one. But I believe voting to promote your values of education, job security, and a better future for your children is about as Asian and American of a tradition as you can get.

But I believe voting to promote your values of education, job security, and a better future for your children is about as Asian and American of a tradition as you can get.

Here at Bluebonnet, our AAPI fellows have found a home where they can use their expertise in tech and industry to make a difference in the political landscape. We embrace the role we have in shaping the future of our country just as much as we embrace making dumplings with our grandparents. Sure, it’s not normal to see so many AAPI faces in politics, but it’s what we’re here to do: buck the trend. That’s not just American of us, that’s Asian American of us.

We embrace the role we have in shaping the future of our country just as much as we embrace making dumplings with our grandparents. Sure, it’s not normal to see so many AAPI faces in politics, but it’s what we’re here to do: buck the trend. That’s not just American of us, that’s Asian American of us.

 

About the Author

VinhHuy Le is a Bluebonnet Data Fellow and Stanford Economics undergrad. Originally from Dallas, Texas, he is passionate about bridging policy ideas and implementation. In his free time, he loves to cook for family and friends, a hobby he picked up during his gap year in 2020.


 

If you like what you’ve read and want to learn more, you can reach us at info@bluebonnetdata.org. Or, want smart, passionate, young folx to help with your data now? Bring on a Bluebonnet team!


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