By Linh Nguyen
Last Christmas, I was lying on a deck chair beside the pool in Cuba when a man came up and asked me if I was Chinese.
“I’m not,” I answered.
“What are you then?” he said.
The question was certainly nothing new, posed in the same assertive tone that expected an enthusiastic response from my part. He spoke jovially, and I was not up for ruining my morning with hostility. I answered.
“Ah!” he exclaimed. “Well, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean… all basically the same.”
He laughed, and before I could recover enough to retort, he walked away.
The insistence that I must be, in some part, Chinese, has plagued me as often as I’ve insisted on being Vietnamese – from my tour guide in New York City explaining to me how all East Asians have the same ancestry, to the kebab vendor in Brno refusing to believe my Chinese friend and I could only communicate with each other in English. This trend of amalgamating a dozen diverse cultures into one has persisted as long as I’ve lived in North America — and at no time of the year does it surface more than during tết, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.
Tết is the most important occasion of the year. For one week, Vietnamese households across the globe come to life with the buzz of preparations. Hours are spent soaking bamboo, rolling nem and wrapping bánh chưng. On the morning of the first, a hundred million people welcome in the New Year, making sure their first visitor will bring wisdom and wealth. It is a time for red envelopes, dried fruit, burning gold leaves, and the embrace of loved ones.
I have little idea what the Chinese celebration is like—an image of lion and dragon dancers come to mind—but when I search up my holiday, I find all mentions of Vietnamese Tết painted over by “Chinese New Year,” as if the two were equivalent.
This conflation has only been reinforced on an institutional level in North America, particularly in schools. I attended primary school in Ithaca, New York, where I was taught to say “Gung Hey Fat Choy” — which, I took to mean “Happy New Year” in Chinese — and nothing more. Incidentally, as I learned in writing this piece, these Cantonese words more accurately translate to “congratulations” or “may you have prosperity” rather than the phrase 新年快樂 (Sun Leen Fai Lok), meaning “Happy New Year.” The well-known “Gung Hey Fat Choy” in North America — in addition to posing as a celebratory phrase for many diverse languages, from Vietnamese to Mandarin — ends up even obscuring its own culture when used in the context of American and Canadian institutions.
My friends who grew up in Toronto have echoed the experience of learning this particular phrase, and I’ve noticed little progress in acknowledging other cultures who celebrate Lunar New Year over the past decade. Just last week, I stepped through the main doors of a public elementary school in the city to find a glass display of books on China, with red paper cutouts and fake cherry blossoms, to welcome the coming new year. While there is no problem in saying “Chinese New Year” when specifically referring to the Chinese New Year — or in setting up a display to celebrate one country’s holiday — the issue lies in believing “Chinese” suffices for everyone, for I doubt such lovely displays of other East Asian cultures exist elsewhere in that school.
In the very least, to have what we cherish about our culture conflated with China’s strikes deeply. The history, and indeed the present, of Chinese-Vietnamese relations have always been strained. Centuries of territorial disputes, border wars, and attempts by the Chinese to colonize Vietnam have left much of my people resentful and suspicious of anything to do with our northern neighbours.
However, the bigger issue lies in how this North American erasure of differences amongst people of colour allows white people to continue living as individuals while forcing minorities to live as groups; as a member of a cultural or religious community, all of our actions, good or bad, represent everyone else in our group, making it easier for dominant society to generalize and ostracize entire communities at once. Asia is the largest, most populous continent in the world, but until recently, the English word “oriental” was acceptable, was enough, to encompass the diversity of our cultures. Certainly, many similarities do exist – traditions and stories that belong to multiple cultures equally – but even as we’re moving away from this particular overarching term, so little is being done on an institutional level to promote the individuality of minority cultures.
As much as attempts to recognize non-European and non-Christian traditions are well-intentioned, it is not enough to lump such diversity under one name and call it a day. It is not enough to teach about the Lunar New Year, to wish someone Happy New Year, while simultaneously erasing the narratives of hundreds of millions of people. It is in acts and phrases like “Chinese New Year” and “Gung Hey Fat Choy” that people like me find their experiences invisible, their culture dismissed, their áo dài labelled as qipao, and their holidays dampened by the offhand comments of those who have never had to see individuality as a privilege.