Another weekend, another extended family get-together. These are a far bigger part of my life since my move here from the UK to be with my Vietnamese-Australian partner, but they’re easy to put up with because the food’s so good.
This time round, we’re visiting a young couple’s home (cousins, I think, though I kind of lose track) to celebrate their first baby reaching her one month milestone. This is a huge deal in Vietnamese and many other Asian cultures, celebrated with far more pomp than, say, the first birthday of a child (or, for that matter, any birthday at all of some pasty-faced, middle-aged, ex-pat incidental - harrumph).
A shrine is stacked with colourful, fruity offerings to the gods, a crew of close friends and family are invited over to bestow gifts and celebrate, and the new child is officially presented to the world and named, as the backdrop to one more another boozy banquet, which may well culminate in a mahjong marathon.
The occasion can also mark the mother’s reintroduction to the wider world, following 30 days of confinement in the home, spent sitting in stiflingly warm rooms being fed pigs’ feet porridge and rice wine.
Cousin Mai is too modern and gastronomically discerning to have stuck to the letter of this tradition, but she did avoid going out for her first month of motherhood, wary of the watchful eyes of encircling new grandmothers.
When we had our first child, six years ago, we were too restless to stay at home. Within a week, we had our baby daughter swaddled up in her buggy and out on inner-suburban streets, along which we merrily bounced in our bubble of exhausted glee. We wouldn’t have been feeling so pleased with ourselves had we known that we’d been spotted, and that the ruthlessly efficient network of Vietnamese community gossip would bear news of our transgression to my mother-in-law within the hour.
We’d been spotted, and that the ruthlessly efficient network of Vietnamese community gossip would bear news of our transgression to my mother-in-law within the hour.
I took the call.
“What’s this I hear about you all leaving the house? My daughter only had the baby a week ago! You’re crazy! They catch a cold!” she barked into my chastened ear. Outside, it was a balmy twenty-four degrees.
That wasn’t the only time I bore the wrath of my mother-in-law during early parenthood.
“Don’t praise her!” I’d be admonished, each time I remarked on how beautiful, clever or otherwise wondrous our new daughter was (pretty much every time she smiled, gurgled or successfully expelled gas), “It’s bad luck!”
Yes, apparently, you should only compliment a Vietnamese baby if you preface every utterance with the phrase “trộm vía” (which translates as “steal soul”) - because, if you don’t, you’re asking for trouble from any of the demons and ghosts who are hanging around the place, alert to such a slip.
In order to appease my mother-in-law, I did make one or two attempts at inserting a “trộm vía” before commenting on how brilliant my progeny was, but my Vietnamese pronunciation is so poor that I just ended up complaining that my chicken had been stolen, which evidently doesn’t count.
I still haven’t kicked the habit of praising our kids. The jury is out on whether this has led to demonic possession.
We leave the one-month bash long before the mahjong tiles are split, for fear our children get over-tired and cranky, which might make bedtime even more tortuous than usual.
“So, will you shave the baby’s head tomorrow? Isn’t that what you’re meant to do?” I ask Mai, as I make the farewell rounds.
Tradition dictates that this will protect the child, as well as ensure that their hair grows to be thick, glossy and abundant.
“God, no,” she replies with an effusive snort. “That stuff’s just an old wives’ tale.”
Time is pressing, and everyone’s finally got their shoes on, so I decide not to mention that this was the one custom we actually managed to stick to, with our son at least.
As a victim of hereditary, premature male pattern baldness myself, I figured I could at least give the kid a fighting chance.
Image courtesy of Flickr/ Kenny Louie.
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