“Lunar New Year in Hanoi: A Haibun” by Kenneth Tanemura

Kenneth Tanemura


My wife and I are visiting her hometown, Hanoi, to celebrate the Lunar New Year with her parents, sisters, and extended family. The first day of the new year feels anticlimactic after last night’s fireworks, cigars, Italian wine, sweet rice. A few minutes after waking I hear the incessant subtle slow ticking of the clock that depresses me with the feeling of seconds as a unit of time, how limiting that is, cutting out the past, constricting the present, turning the future into oblivion. I saw thousands of peach blossoms being sold by vendors yesterday. They set up their trees and blossoms at West Lake and beyond, and throngs of cars and motorbikes crammed those narrow streets to get a glimpse, to bring something festive home, to brighten a house and the people who live there. People tied the little trees to their motorbikes and sped away, hoping the blossoms would bring them growth, prosperity, love. I think of a haiku with a peach blossom in it:
The peach blossoms know nothing
of the language barrier
between mother-and-son-in-law
Looking out the window I see that only the part of the building across the street that faces the street is painted. The sides of the building are shorn of façade, of all aspiration towards beauty.
First day of the year—
the neighbour’s blue house
has become royal blue
I go downstairs to ask my mother-in-law if she needs any help. She always says no, though this time her expression seems to say, “But why didn’t you come down earlier? Don’t lie in bed with your Kindle for heaven’s sake. Don’t you see your wife is tending to the baby on her own?” She doesn’t speak English, only Vietnamese. I accept the validity of her perceptions. Books, art, and music, yes, but what about helping people? I’ve always been better with things. Words on paper are things like the bronze bust of an ancestor with eyes that look past you or within. Not the eyes of a man. For my infant son, the notebook I write on is just another thing to grab, grip, lunge for, maybe eat. But books provide clarity, language for experiences we have no words for, and new experiences we could not have had in any other way. I go out to the garden to see what’s happening there.
First day of the year—
how the small grapefruit
bends the branch to water
First day of the year—
pond too murky
to see the carp
I whistle at the caged guard dog
to calm him, he sniffs the air
in a calming way
Used to be I went out with other poets to write haiku, a poetic genre I first learned about from my Japanese mother. Tea garden San Jose. Belonged to haiku clubs. Knew moments, not the bigger picture. Most moments are so-what moments, significant only to the perceiver, but irrelevant to the reader. There are a few that stand out, come rarely, like finding the snowy owl in the park in midwinter. My youth was still as rose bushes, I think. On the outside. Chaos inside, mood swings, dark days. Didn’t know what to do with a life. Am I still immobile, fixed? My mother-in-law is constantly in flux, at the kitchen sink, jumping on the motorbike to peruse flowers at the market, all the way out to West Lake and back. Frenetic pace. She does advanced yoga, and she’s agile as a 30-year-old in her 60s. Everything she does benefits others. The only indulgence she gives herself is an early Sunday morning bowl of pho at a restaurant overlooking Turtle Lake. Before the others wake up and their stomachs grumble for breakfast. Before she cooks, boils, chops, slices, fries, washes, all while catching up with her daughters.
Talking gossip. She’s so invested in life and what is life if not the lives of people? Makes me think I got it wrong. Too much literature on the mind. Her husband has wandered out to his writing room, detached from the house, to drink tea, smoke a cigarette, consider if he should write a New Year couplet. He contemplates here in the little snatches of time he can steal from the day’s busywork. He’s formally educated. She didn’t go to college, but she comes from a literary family, a long line of poets and writers in Hanoi. They aren’t opposites and they aren’t conjoined. They are cosmologically interconnected. I want to write a couplet too, but I’m not feeling it—lack of sleep, grey morning, the water run dry.
The hens
their necks straight
look in different directions
The path around the garden is blocked by low-hanging branches that bear no fruit or flowers. Is that it? Waste of time. Too sullen this morning for anything to open.
The flower buds
even on the first day of the year
remain buds
Big floppy leaves of a tree I don’t know the name of brushes my head as I walk back to the house. Starfruit dangle enticingly in the cool morning air. My mother-in-law and I are looking for different things: she wants the pure vibrancy of colour to colour over everything. I want the apricot tree that blooms only three weeks at a time, only three times a year, the ones that grace the house for Lunar New Year and are cast off into the corner of the garden later, as if they no longer symbolize gentlemanly purity and elegance unspoiled by greed or cruelty after the first week of the new year is gone. Pure vibrancy of colour. Maybe that’s the right way. To colour over everything. Past that is dissatisfaction. Past that is not life anymore.
The Phoenix flowers’
red petals upright on the first
day of a new year
Leaving the garden, I go to my father-in-law’s office. My wife encouraged me to visit him there to learn the meaning of the poem he has composed. He has written a one-line poem shorter than haiku, in calligraphy, using Chinese characters. The poem is written on parchment paper with a little string at the top to hang on a hook. The poem reads: “Spring knocks at the gate.” The double meaning is that both spring and family visitors knock at the gate since it’s customary for people to spend the first day of spring visiting relatives. Spring knocks at the gate of a new year and enters. I don’t think it’s right to say that spring is symbolic of family members; neither are the family members emblematic of spring. Spring is tangible and felt: flowers bloom, birds sing, the air grows balmy and a renewed hope, a fresh resolve to give it another go bolsters us in the company of family and friends. Spring is spring, and family visitors are family visitors, yet they are the same thing. The moment you try to turn them into symbols, you lose their meaning. My father-in-law tapes his poem to the front gate, a wide, tall block of metal strong enough to protect a fortress. Yet the public display of a poem calligraphed on fragile paper reflects the true spirit of the people who reside there. When the visitors come, will they see themselves as spring knocking at the gate, or the first day of spring as a version of themselves, waiting to be let in?
The first day of spring—
everyone in their best clothes,
their best faces
The first day of spring—
in-laws become father and son
writing at the same table
The first day of spring—
everyone granted a fresh start
looks beautiful
The first day of spring—
we hand our work stress
to the departed year of the tiger
We write at the same table, his writing table. He shares his New Year thoughts on social media, and I write haiku on my iPhone. This is the table where he wrote essays about his daughter, my wife. This is the table where he wrote when he was a formidable figure I never met, whose form was fleshed out by my not-yet-wife’s anecdotes, her eyes brightening less from the pleasure of telling a tale than for her love and admiration for her father. The anecdotes were about her father the kung fu teacher, doctor of Chinese medicine, author of bestselling books, poet, calligrapher, son of an important anti-colonialist revolutionary, manager of factories, a guy’s guy, the list went on. “Do you think you can handle the pressure?” she said.
“Yes,” I said, not knowing what I was able to handle.
Thanks to the miracle of taxidermy and a former student who hunted wolves, he sits on a chair directly in front of a wolf, its head hovering over my father-in-law, which makes him look like a wolf-man, spurred on by the spirit of freedom and instincts. This is his chair alone. “You have to sit facing the wolf if you want to write here,” he said.
I face the wolf: those fangs, those enraged eyes, the mouth gaping open as if to snap shut like a guillotine onto a poor elk’s throat, don’t necessarily inspire numinous moments. Still, I focus on the wolf as a symbol of intelligence, communication, and understanding. “We all share a life together,” my father-in-law says, gesturing with a broad sweep of his hand. He grounds my isolate, individualist bearing, and brings me back to the communal, the common ground we all have, and share even more with our families.
Going back to the kitchen, I ask my mother-in-law if she needs me to help her with anything. She is the heart and soul of the family. She placed the daffodils that bloom once a year on the table, because they are pretty and symbolize new beginnings. She flung open the big acacia double doors this morning and filled the entrance to the house with violets so they may bring a moment of peace and beauty to the visitors. She feeds the visitors, gives them tea, cleans up the mess they leave and sees them off with a vibrant smile and wishes for good health and success.
First day of the new year—
the faces of people
are the faces of peonies

from Poets Respond
January 29, 2023


Kenneth Tanemura: “I’m in Hanoi, Vietnam, for the Tet holiday to celebrate with my in-laws. There has been a lot of news coverage about the Lunar New Year holiday celebrations around the world, but somehow I found a lack of coverage in the major American newspapers. Most Americans seem to have a shallow understanding of this very rich and complex experience, which is far more layered and significant than the way Americans celebrate Christmas, for example. I wanted to write something that would illuminate the meaning of this holiday in greater depth.”

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