Tabitha Carvan is Senior Staff Writer in the sciences for the Australian National University, and a freelance writer on the side. 

That time I tried to be culturally sensitive but ended up an accomplice in the escape of a mentally-ill aunt

That time I tried to be culturally sensitive but ended up an accomplice in the escape of a mentally-ill aunt

This personal essay was commissioned and published by Crikey.


In the lead-up to Vietnamese New Year, or Tết, the streets in Hanoi become, somehow, even more hectic than usual. Knots of interlaced motorbikes jam every intersection as Hanoians buzz about the city, furiously stocking up on potted orchids, paper votives and individually-wrapped snacks, all of which are essential to the lunar new year.

For a foreigner, Tết is a stressful time, and not just because of the traffic and the short supply of individually-wrapped snacks. It’s also a cultural minefield.

For a joyful celebration, Tết sure does have a lot of rules. There are prescribed gifts to be given to prescribed people at prescribed times; there are foods you absolutely must eat and foods you absolutely cannot; there are days when you throw live goldfish into the river, and days when you burn paper horses, and days when you burn paper fish. Thankfully there are not days when you throw live horses into the river. Or at least not that I know of.

My partner and I were invited to our Vietnamese friend’s family home to celebrate Tết with them last year. This was an enormous honour, and we were committed to doing whatever we could to avoid any cultural faux pas.

To prepare, we read up on the traditions of Tết, but the more we read, the more stressed we became. For example, the Wikipedia entry says you must give gifts to your hosts during Tết, but, whatever you do, you mustn’t give one of the following: clocks, cats, scissors or cuttle-fish.

Reading this, we were under the impression that unless we were attentive, we could actually find ourselves giving any one of clocks, cats, scissors or cuttle-fish as a Tết gift. Like, you’d walk into a shop and the shelves will be filled with potted orchids, paper votives and cats. And whatever you do, don’t choose the cats.

So, taking the safest route, we decided on a hamper. But because we were trying extra hard to make a good impression, we spurned the typical Tết hampers containing cigarettes, instant coffee and fake Chivas (“Chiwas” made of “whiskey materials”), and made up the hamper ourselves, using all Australian produce. Isn’t that thoughtful? A real personal touch.

When we arrived at our friend’s home in a village outside of Hanoi, and saw, unsurprisingly, that it couldn’t have been more traditionally rural Vietnamese. Our “thoughtful” hamper suddenly took on a new air. It looked ridiculously misplaced. Our friend politely asked us to explain what Vegemite was and we were left with nothing more to say than it was for, umm, toast? A food which I’m sure her family had never heard of.

“Hmm” she said, examining the jar. “Can you use it for anything else?” I thought of suggesting they could sell it to a foreigner and use the money to buy something they actually wanted, like instant coffee. We may as well have brought a hamper filled with cats and cuttle-fish.

When it came to lunch, the generosity of the family was humbling. There were dozens of dishes, which were all delicious. We had done our research on Tết foods also, and had brought with us two enormous bánh chưng, the traditional Vietnamese glutinous rice cakes eaten at this time of year. When we produced these two huge parcels and proudly announced “Vietnamese Tết cake!” (read: “not Australian!”) all the faces around the table dropped.

Our friend then explained to us that while bánh chưng is indeed a Tết food, her family eat it only out of obligation, and for tradition, rather than for any actual enjoyment. It’s a dense, gooey, bland food that you stomach in small doses throughout the week of Tết and rightfully spurn the rest of the year. They didn’t mention that in the Wikipedia entry, did they?

She pointed to the burdensome bánh chưng her family were already trudging their way through, which had been placed, spitefully, on the floor. And now they had two more. Here was a family who had so little, and we’d given them the one thing they didn’t want. It was as if we’d brought along a whole extra wedding cake at the end of a wedding. Our bánh chưng were placed as an offering on the family altar, along with our Australian wine. I mouthed “sorry” to the ancestors’ portraits. I could sense their disappointment from the afterlife.

The rest of our visit continued in this fashion. Our friend told us we should give lucky Tết money to her mentally-ill aunt, which we did, discreetly so as not to embarrass her. What our friend failed to mention is that she meant for us to give the lucky money to her father who would accept it on behalf ofher aunt, being her carer. We found this out after her aunt used the money we gave her to run away to town, where she was living it up, and refusing to come back to the house. Nice work, foreigners.

They got her back, eventually. I’m pretty sure the bánh chưng and Vegemite were not used as lures. Her family were nice about it. In fact, the whole time they were gracious, accommodating and welcoming hosts, which only made us feel worse.

For Tết this year, we’re staying home.

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