Saturday, February 5, 2011
My Tet in New Orleans
"Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools."
--Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands
It has been seven years since I've lived in a city with any noteworthy amount of Asians in it sufficient to cull together festivities for the lunar new year, and sixteen years since I've lived somewhere with some permutation of a Little Saigon. Those were my thoughts while driving to New Orleans East, one of the three cornerstones of the Vietnamese community in New Orleans. It is ten p.m. and I have successfully coerced Matt, my white building neighbor and friend to accompany me to a Buddhist temple off of Chef Menteur Highway on the eve of Tet, the Vietnamese celebration of the lunar New Year.
My intel on this venture is minimal. The day before I sent an email to a Vietnamese community organizer I met at a fundraising conference. She is ten years my junior, I barely know her but that didn't stop me from sending interrogational emails about the local Tet festivities. I longed for the familiarity of a Tet celebration, so in desperation, I pleaded for information and received beta on about the time, day and location. But I had no idea how public or how festive these events in fact would be.
As a child, I was one of a quarter of a million Vietnamese Americans living in Southern California in the 1980's and '90's. On the lunar New Year's Eve, my family would leave the house at approximately 11:00pm, all of us dressed up, and my mother in one of her nicest ao dai dresses and gold jewelry. We would pagoda-hop, all of which were spilling with hundreds patrons, drowning in the perfume of burning joss sticks offered up to the ancestors. Chants would be led by monks who sang their song to the beat of a small wooden drum shaped like a gourd, and verses marked by the clanging of a large bell sitting upright on its own pillow. The statues of Buddha were large and illuminated, their faces smiling that smile through the smoke and the lights and the chants; they seemed to watch over the scenario with perfect calm and poise. My parents would exchange niceties with their friends and acquaintances as my sisters and I would accumulate more blessed oranges in between respectful and obligatory bows to chatting adults. We'd get home at around 2a.m. and eat bowls of noodles and dumplings prepared by my mother and grandmother earlier in the day. The meal ensured us a long life (the noodles) full of wealth (the dumplings).
The next day my parents would allow us to call in sick to our Catholic schools. And on the weekend, we would hit the Tet Festival in the Little Saigon area in full form, which was (and probably still is) basically like a state fair, but just for Vietnamese people. Stands of food, games, and rides lined the streets, almost exclusively for this immigrant population who had made their presence known for the past ten to fifteen years. For the ensuing two weeks, we stuffed ourselves with banh chung, the Vietnamese pork and rice cake prepared for this particular holiday.
And then I went to college in Berkeley, and then law school in New York City, eventually moving to and living for six years in Alaska. While there wasn't quite the Vietnamese tour de force in Berkeley or New York City, the Chinese version was good enough. Alaska, however, was virtually a complete dead zone for Asians of any kind. In the Great North I had created my own Tet festivities, involving epic dumpling parties in a two-room cabin with live music in every corner. They were special and memorable parties spent with good friends, but an improvisation at best, in which I was the sole Asian, let alone sole Vietnamese. During those frosty Arctic years, my mother would send me banh chung and oranges blessed by Vietnamese monks in Orange County, California. They would typically arrive in Alaska from their lengthy sojurn somewhat dehydrated for a pretty delivery penny costing my mother $20-$40. This year, I assured her that everything was under control, that I would be picking up my own banh chung and oranges from the pagoda myself.
The Vietnamese population in New Orleans numbers at around 15,000, about 6,000 of which are in Village de l'Est, a section of East New Orleans also referred to as Versailles. Many were refugees from the 1970's and were Catholics who were sponsored in large part by the Catholic Charities branch based out of New Orleans. For that reason, though a minority of 20% in Vietnam, the population of Vietnamese immigrants in New Orleans is vastly Catholic.
For this reason, I am not sure what to expect as I head out to the barely-lit expanse of stripmall-ville of East New Orleans, where land is cheap and barren. I am driving in search of a Buddhist temple, with a white friend in tow, fairly unsure of what I am doing. It is as if I am chasing after childhood memories, in hopes of reviving them from the dead.
After correcting a few wrong turns, we find the Van Hanh Buddhist Center. It is quiet but the parking lot is full of well-maintained cars. I step into a room with about 20 complete strangers, all of whom are Vietnamese. They are looking at Matt and me, and I immediately second-guess my decision to bring a white guy roughly my age to a celebration of this nature. However, we are treated kindly and immediately are invited to a free meal of vegetarian noodles and tofu. We sit down at the end of the table near two guys in their twenties and I introduce myself and Matt, explaining eagerly that he is my neighbor and that his white wife his home with the flu. We enjoy the meal and Matt is a good sport as we eat more strange snacks and watch middle-aged monks and lay people sing karaoke in Vietnamese at what seems like 2,000,000 decibels.
The excursion is not made in vain. As twelve o'clock strikes three dragons come to life to the beat of a large drum. Dragon heads comprised of wood, cloth, feathers, and paint, and a train made of matching cloth begin dancing, as guided by the Vietnamese-American teenagers holding the head portions and others holding the tails. They wag their ends and bob their heads around, before entering the temple and bowing in front of the Buddha. In tow is a portly character with the mask of a bald man holding a fan; he is both the dragons' friend and toy.
The dragons then rush out in front of the temple and two streamers of firecrackers dangling from the ceramic tiled roof, each sixty feet long, are lit with the purpose of scaring away evil spirits. The dragons chase and dance amongst the explosive crackling as we spectators shield ourselves from the embers. Eventually the din stops and the dragons continue their frolicking, snacking on crisp dollar bills from members of the crowd, who playfully offer them up as if appeasing a local mafioso. The dance lasts for half an hour before the congregation of about 50 settle into the temple to listen to the New Years' service.
We first listen to the American national anthem, followed by that of the former South Vietnam. There is a look a stoic sadness in the faces of those present 50 years and older. The youth remain respectfully quiet, not quite seeming to share the same emotion. We listen to a benediction given by a Vietnamese nun visiting from her new home in Texas. She kindly says a few words in English as a gesture to the youth present, and, well, Matt. "There is no way to happiness," she explains, "Happiness is the way. It is in you already. You must find that quiet place that is not so noisy." The congregation then chants in unison for half an hour, kneeling, standing, bowing, standing, kneeling. Though I am not a particularly religious person, I welcomed the familiarity of kneeling and standing and chanting. It felt good. (Though I probably will skip the skinny jeans next time.)
Driving home, Matt and I are both sleepy, but only I am tired. I am reminded how long I have been wandering the earth more or less on my own, and how long it has been since I have lived in a Vietnamese community. On this evening I am reminded that I am part of a diasporic ethnic group that came from a country that, like many places, was changed irrevocably by a civil war. I suddenly miss my late grandma, the one who lived in my parents' home throughout most of my life. She is the primary reason I can speak Vietnamese at all, and up until I lived in Vietnam for a year while in college, she is what I equated with the old country.
Two days later, I drag yet another white friend, Sarah, to the Tet festival held at Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. We come too late for the dragon dances, but in plenty of time for food. We hop from stand to stand, sharing a pair of spring rolls, a banh mi sandwich, a bowl bun noodles with grilled pork, a bowl of hu tieu soup, a plate of banh xeo crepe, and a small cup of Vietnamese tapioca for dessert. We wander the crowd listening to the awful but lovable Vietnamese rock band warbling away under colorful lights and smoke machines, against a backdrop of a giant pagoda set.
We make our way to the casino portion of the fair. In keeping with tradition, there are Vietnamese craps tables with shapes of animals instead of numbers, and instead of die there is a roulet wheel with corresponding animal shapes. Vietnamese-Americans are staring intently at the drawings placing bets on the shapes with a certain level of focus, as if they were in Las Vegas.
We peruse the crowd and I notice that Sarah is being rubber-necked by one of the few white people. I also notice a handful of young, black teenagers timidly working the under-18 crowd alongside their Vietnamese-American schoolmates. It is a very cool scene. It is 10:30pm by the time we leave and the crowd is still growing.
Without hesitation I proudly identify myself as a Vietnamese American, but my expression of this identity has been a clumsy and unusual one at best. Though well in my thirties, I was born in this country. I lived in Vietnam, but only for a year, and as an adult. Unlike most Vietnamese-Americans, my parents hail from the North. I speak Northern Vietnamese, but it was never great and already is fading fast. I haven't lived in or near a Vietnamese community for over a decade up until now, but I look as Asian as one possibly could. My favorite cuisine of all time is Vietnamese, but sadly it comprises the smallest portion of my culinary repertoire.
When Matt and I are driving home from the temple, I thank him for humoring me and for being patient. I explain briefly to him that for some reason, these rituals and memories have become special to me, and more so as of late. "At least you have these kinds of traditions," he says to me.
I agree with Matt but it wasn't always this way. As a child, being Vietnamese and Buddhist seemed such a burden growing up in the United States attending a Catholic school. As I grew older and saw a little bit of the world, I learned to accept these things of my family and my life, but really just tolerate them. And now, as an adult, I have finally come to appreciate their existence in my life and the role they played in who I am and how I relate to people from all walks of life.
Where the previous Year of the Tiger symbolized unrest and conflict, the Year of the Rabbit is projected to bring peace and resolution. For me it seems this is the case already.