It never feels like a new year until Tet arrives, and speeds away again. Chuc Mung Nam Moi to all my friends out there, the lurkers (I know you're there!), the folks who stumble here looking for banh canh recipes (sorry, kids), and the randoms who post such intriguing comments as this informative snippet on my post about the ao dai:-
Good for you, buddy. I decided not to delete the comment. When I first read it, I was very confused. Then I giggled. Ms Couponalbum.com, you amuse me for the left-fielded-ness of your comment. If we were having a conversation, I would have raised my eyebrow at you. But I am not fooled. I have not visited those websites.
This morning, I telephoned my family to wish them Chuc Mung Nam Moi. I had received, through my email, a notice for all and sundry to descend on my parents for the usual Tet festivities (food, bau cua ca cop, food, other card games, more food). Sadly, due to the lengthy commute, I had to decline. I have been trying to telephone my parents for the last few days to have our usual chat (time in our respective locales, weather, health, cost of phone call, hang-up), but without success.
I telephoned from my mobile, at work. 10am my time, 8pm theirs.
My brother answers the phone. "Hey O," he says, completely unsurprised to hear from me. "Hey bro," I reply, as if I don't miss him madly and as if his brief, prosaic emails to me don't bring tears to my eyes. "Happy New Year!" We both say at the same time. And then, because we have been brought up terribly politely, "Huh? What?" also at the same time. I give up on this game first, "Is everybody there?" I ask. "Yep," he replies, "It's really noisy." I laugh. I can hear in the background all my nieces and nephews squealing away, and talking over the top of each other. "Who's winning?" I ask my bro. "Grump is. She put some money on bau and it came up triples!" "What's happening now?" "Ba's trying to teach them cat te." "Who's he teaching?" "All the little ones: SpiderBoy, Grump, Princess, MyGirl."
Cat te (I have no idea if that is the correct spelling) is my father's favourite card game. I do not remember when he taught me; it seems as if I have always known how to play. Like riding a bike, I don't ever expect to forget. The eldest of the little ones listed above is 5. Cat te involves six cards, and playing tricks by suits, and a pot of money in the middle, called the 'heo' (pig), which is collected by the winner. It is a difficult game to describe, and requires demonstration. I like it for its flourish at the end game. I cannot imagine any of the little ones grasping the idea of the game. It's difficult enough teaching them the rules of 'catch'. Ba is an impatient man, but unnervingly patient when it comes to kids and card games.
My mother comes onto the phone. We deal with the important things first: (Are you well? Yes I'm well. What's the time there? Morning, and you? Night. How's the weather? The weather's sunny, and you? Oh it's been raining here non-stop!) I tell her that I have been trying to call, without success. She tells me that, due to the incessant rain*, the phone line has been playing up. The only way to get her is to ring my parents' mobile, or to ring my brother's mobile who will then ring her and tell her to ring whoever rang him. I have no idea how ringing my brother is an efficient way of getting onto my parents, but Um seems to think it is. I don't bother trying to get her to explain. I wish her a happy new year, and she wishes the same to me and my partner. Then she says something like, "Oh, I think that I... Old man, talk to your daughter," and the phone is handed to my father. I assume she has gone off to check how some food is going, but I cannot say for sure. I have the same brief conversation with my father.
*Yay! Brisbane, Rain. Yay!
I can hear my siblings in the background, and distinguishable voices float out at me. That's the Big Boss laughing, and the Accountant telling a story. I can hear the little ones clamouring for my father's attention. I can tell my father is distracted from our conversation as the card game is still going. I say goodbye, as I am at work and shouting Vietnamese in my office. It's not billable.
After I hang up, I sit still for a while, and stare out the window, re-composing Lawyer Oanh, as opposed to Daughter Oanh. I smile at the clear picture I have of my family in my parents' living room, seated on the ground playing cards, and scrambling noisily over each other whenever more drinks, more food or trips to the bathroom are required. I wish I was there. Suddenly, I begin to cry.
Unfortunately, my tears roughly coincide with a knock on my door, and I have barely any time to become Lawyer Oanh when The Boss walks in. I do not initially look up at him, but I know I will have to. I am one of those people who, when they cry, end up with red splotches all over their face. I still have tear tracks on my cheeks, my eyes are all red and swollen, my nose is running, and even my forehead is splotchy. I just know.
I take a deep breath and look up at him. The look on his face almost makes me laugh; he was just about to say a cheery hello, but has been arrested by my tear sodden face. I manage to hiccup out, "I'm okay. I just rang my family for New Year. I'll be fine in 10. Can I come see you then?" "Of course, of course," he says backing out, "Everything's really okay?" "Everything's really okay, Boss. I just miss them because it's the New Year." He looks at me oddly, and does not leave my office.
This means I have to compose myself in front of him. How aggravating. I take a deep breath, take my glasses off and rub furiously at my eyes. I put my glasses back on. I normalise the conversation for him: "Any new claims, today?" "No," he says, "The mail's pretty boring, actually." I can tell he is relieved and ready to pretend he did not glimpse non-Lawyer Oanh.
Then he says,"The New Year?" I smile at him. "Yes. It's the Lunar New Year." He still looks uncertain. Inwardly, I sigh. "Chinese New Year. But the Vietnamese have it too, and we call it Tet, or the Lunar New Year. I'd rather not call it Chinese New Year. Because I'm not Chinese."