The lunar new year comes a bit late this time. The first day of Tet coincides with Valentine’s Day on a Sunday. Can you imagine how big it is for the Asian expats? The other years Tet happened during the week, people have to work, kids have classes, maybe even tests. Who knows what a pop quiz on that first day can do to a child that whole year? Tet in Vietnam is in the spring, but for the expats in the western hemisphere, if Tet comes a bit too early, like in January, then it’d still be coat-and-cold-nose time. So yeah, it’s big this year.
In the past few days it’s been snowing in Texas and everything, but the weather here has gotten fairly springlike. The hills are all fuzzily green, purplish pink flowers blooming on the side streets (I know nothing about botany, but my guess is they are related to cherry blossoms somehow), spring showers come every now and then just to wet your eyebrows. The employment rate may still be low in Cali, but there was no sign of a recession in San Jose last weekend. The parking lots at Lion and the Grand Century mall were packed. It was like Black Friday sale. Cars were moving bumper to bumper trying to get in and out and maybe a spot. We went through maybe 8 songs on the CD while waiting to make a right turn to the other side of the mall. Of course it was also the big Super Bowl day, but we could tell that Vietnamese men and women really paid attention to football.
…Maybe if football looked like bầu cua… Lots of these tables were set along the sidewalk at Grand Century mall, some are games I’ve never seen before. My family used to play bầu cua during Tet, just a small game of dice to pass time. I liked it because of the pictures: a shrimp, a crab (“cua”), a wine gourd (“bầu”, hence the name of the game), a rooster, a fish, and a deer, which are also the six sides of the dice. Ah, sweet memories of the candies I won…
But not everyone was out for playing games, most of the women seemed to come here for the same reason I had: the food. Tet is not Tet without fridgefuls, counterfuls, pantryfuls, freezerfuls, and extrabellifuls of food. Banh chung banh tet are essential, but not the only thing. Lion supermarket had an entire aisle dedicated for pickles and mắm (cured fish, which can be eaten fresh out of the jar with white rice, cooked in a hot pot, or steamed with egg and pork to make a kind of meat loaf). It’s not nước mắm (fish sauce, that goes with banh cuon and bun thit nuong), not mắm nêm or mắm tôm (other kinds of dipping sauces), it’s visible cuts and strips of fish in jars of seasonings. As for pickles, the most popular choice for Tet must be củ kiệu (the bulb of Allium chinense). Its pungency is between scallion and garlic, a fresh change of taste from the overindulgent fatty pork stews, eggs and sticky rice of Tet. See your favorite pickle anywhere?
Enough salt? Want something sweet? The bakeries in Grand Century were ready to get you. Usually people were there for the green waffle, now they were there for even more green waffles plus boxes of Tet toothsies. They are not candies, they are not jam (if you’re British) or jelly (if you’re American), they are not simple dried fruits, they are not glacé. They are mứt, fruits whole and sliced, quickly stir-fried in sugar syrup, just sweet enough to last a month or two, but the fruit flavor should still be there. The lady told me not to take pictures, but I did anyway.
On the other hand, the flower stands didn’t mind me taking pictures at all. In fact, there were more people taking pictures with these flamboyants than people buying them. It may be too timid a miniature of Nguyen Hue flower market, but its spirit is high, that of both the visitors hungry for a look of Tet and of the buds and petals blooming despite the foreign cold.
The northern đào (peach flower) can make it here. The southern mai doesn’t, but Tet needs a yellow flower, so people in San Jose pick a vine with bright yellow blossoms and call it the “vine mai”. I have no idea what the vine actually is, but it’d make beautiful canopies.
Then firecrackers popped their sporadic crunchy strings of sound. The pavement turned red. Old and middle-aged men in dark jackets gathered in large groups, hunching over little sets of Chinese chess (yes, chess, not Chinese checker!). They don’t make loud acclaims, many just watched the chess pieces and sank in thought. Their greying hair felt another spring breeze, clinging onto the memories of how a festive tradition should be celebrated. Thirty years from now, will the next generation be in their place?