The warm hug around my taste bud from candied ginger, the filling assurance in my stomach from bánh chưng, the blissful cherry blossom and kumquat trees across all corners of my eyes—every second of Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year wrapped my memory with its embrace.
Stamp, ship, sent.
After leaving home, Tet was in a package I could only open partially. The only thing hugging me now is not the warm hug of candied ginger, the filling assurance of bánh chưng, or the blissful cherry blossom and kumquat trees but my twin-sized blanket in a brick dorm room. Only through the replaying of photos and relatives’ social media posts do I live the far-from-home Tet.
When Tet plays a massive role in Vietnamese culture, this nationally celebrated holiday surpasses its materialistic meaning of a two-week break—it values the sense of home, family, and belongings. Understandably, Vietnamese international students feel the most homesick during this time of the year. Instead of receiving lucky money, lì xì, or steaming bánh trưng with their family, these students continue with their daily lives without a holiday or a moment to uphold the Tet spirit.
Unlike other days, homesickness amongst Vietnamese students living abroad during Tet affects their performance significantly. The yearning for comfort and the physical interactions with family immensely impacted their emotional and mental health. The changes in environment, culture, weather, or even crowd stimulate sadness, lacking the sense of belonging that has been associated with Tet.
When a collective vulnerability grows powerfully, Vietnamese students come together amongst foreign faces and create various Vietnamese Student Associations or Vietnamese culture clubs to find solidarity and a sense of belonging. Not only does the far-from-home Tet celebration keep the students away from homesickness, but it is also an opportunity to learn about the global Lunar New Year celebration and understand and find solidarity with another Asian ethnicity.
Tet celebration happens despite all odds.
The initial displacement and disconnection
“I am going to be really honest; I didn’t really care about Tet before. I only cared about the lucky money during Tet. But as I grew older, especially in the last two years, before I came to the US, I had this sentiment every single time Tet came around.”
To Phuong Y Nguyen, a freshman student at Northeastern University, Tet hits differently every year leading up to her first year in the States. Recognizing the significance of this holiday regarding family gatherings, she holds her feeling of belonging during Tet dearly in her heart. Familial love in the atmosphere makes this holiday her favorite one, appreciating the cultural importance and uniqueness of Tet to her identity.
The stuttering came to her voice as she talked about her first year away from home. It was on that phone call with her mom that she realized Tet was right around the corner. With the lack of discussions about Tet in the United States, she felt as though a part of her heritage had been sinking down, leaving room for human adaptation to a new environment. Culturally shocked, she found the diurnal life in replace of the Tet excitement overwhelming.
“I was honestly so shocked. Usually, during this time of the year, a week before Tet, we all know Tet is coming. Every single house has decorations. People all feel nice and feel better during Tet. But here, it is just like a normal day. I actually have like five [mid-term] exams during Tet. While I am supposed to celebrate Tet here, I do not have the sense of Tet at all.”
Along the way of maturity, Phuong Y saw the changes in her voice when switching between the two languages—code switching. Gradually, some part of her Vietnamese identity is not prioritized in every mass anymore, especially the community. Tet is the time to value this cultural element, and without the holiday, the sense of community and its sentiment are hard to cling on to. While the United States celebrates Thanksgiving, Tet holds a more significant role with its genuinely enriching history. Hoping to see not only Tet but also Lunar New Year to be celebrated more widely in the United States, Phuong Y seeks this homely vibe of Tet even from far away.
“I do kinda wish that, with such a big Asian population in the United States, Lunar New Year should have been more celebrated. I am a little disappointed, but we have to adapt to [the cultural difference].”
Even when calling herself flexible, Phuong Y could not help but feel like an imposter. Homesickness had motivated her to come together with her friends for a Tet celebration and little moments of cultural connections, understanding that leaving home for the United States was an executive decision for her education.
The expressive coping mechanism
No longer an amateur in this Tet-less journey, Mai Khanh Phan, a first-year student at Parsons School of Design, has grown to accept the missing of this Vietnam-centric culture in her yearly calendar. Tet, still, means a lot to her, representing reunion and reflection. In the spirit of an art student, she misses the food, decorating her house, and making banh chung with her grandparents at the corner of the house.
“Kind of stuff that they don’t usually do in their daily lives. And it’s also a chance for me or any other kids to meet our grandparents, and it’s also an event for people to renew themselves, maybe reflecting on what they’ve done in the past year.”
Unlike Phuong Y, Mai Khanh has felt adaptive to her environment since high school. Although the void of Tet in her schedule slowly filled up, the first year was undeniably hard—the call from her mom evoked an emotional longing for her family members, but not necessarily homesickness.
Spending her first three years in Lake Forest Academy, a boarding high school in Illinois, she built herself a network of Vietnamese friends and Asian friends whose homesickness is shared during this time of the year. Over the course of four years, as she got used to the absence of Tet, Khanh rather feels nostaligic.
“I don’t have a lot of problem with being homesick. My high school was a very small community. We have an Asian club that celebrates New Year, even though we do not have a break. It feels more homie back then. Now that I am in college, it’s a bigger community, and it is also harder to meet people with the same identity. I may be homesick a little bit, but my parents call me every day.”
Not only did Mai Khanh adapt, but also her parents were used to celebrating Tet without their daughter, making Tet carry less sadness. Alternatively, Khanh and her family found ways to enjoy this holiday: decorating the school with posters, eating traditional foods with fellow Vietnamese friends, or reading parents’ handwritten letters. She embraces the nuance of her Tet experience and incorporates it into her artistic career. Navigating her paintbrush through the world and forming a vision of her future, she always finds a way to bring the Vietnamese culture into it. For every Vietnamese-themed project, she is proud to present.
“In such a diverse city as New York, I feel so special that this is my identity, and not a lot of people have the same experiences as me. Even during Tet, it is unique to do something special. It makes me feel more connected.”
Bridging the beautiful Vietnamese culture to the world through her artworks, Mai Khanh adores this part of her identity even more when she is far away from home. The powerful emotions and love for the Vietnamese culture helped Mai Khanh celebrate Tet differently despite the geographical barrier.