Clusters of yellow flowers, or hoa mai in Vietnamese, adorn the front of the sanctuary at Thunderbolt Baptist Church. Approximately forty members of the congregation sing in the pews while those on stage celebrate the Lunar New Year with hymns in their native language.
For Asian cultures that celebrate the Lunar New Year, which falls on February 1 this year, it is the most anticipated holiday. But like many holidays, the celebration was curtailed last year due to the pandemic and hasn’t returned to its full glory.
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A stack of bánh tét, sticky rice rolls wrapped in banana leaves, could have been 200 rolls tall before the pandemic. This year, only about 40 of the treats were made. But that doesn’t mean she has missed out on the Christmas feeling, said Christiana Phan, 22, who has attended church since she was a child.
“Last Sunday, everyone stayed after church and did a bunch of those (bánh tét).” said Phan, whose father is Pastor Truc Thuong Phan, “They roll them up, they wrap them… it’s like this big event.”
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Phan recalls how they would visit family and friends in their homes and feast on a host of homemade dishes.
“We used to do a lot more of that when our congregation was bigger. In the last couple of years, because of COVID and the community being very tense…” Phan said, pausing, “…we’ve had to increase security and we broadcast online, so it’s been a little bit smaller.” .
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Phan was referring to another wave of death: a surge in attacks on Asians during the COVID-19 pandemic that, in several cases, have killed or seriously injured elderly people across the country.
Adding to fears about infection, Phan said the church had to prepare for possible violence and installed extra locks on its doors. The last few years have been difficult for the community at large, she said.
But the confluence of difficulties also facilitated a reflection on their cultural identity.
“We did a lot of adaptation; we did a lot of survival. A lot of people came here in the 1990s and their children were born here, so they just put us here,” Phan said.
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The Vietnamese community in Savannah is not as bustling as in the larger metropolitan cities. Pastor Truc Phan estimates there are about 800 Vietnamese in the Savannah area, most of whom have a refugee rather than immigration background.
The church was formed in the 1990s and served as a home away from home for refugees who came to Savannah seeking asylum after the Vietnam War. As the Vietnamese congregation grew, they “inherited” Thunderbolt Baptist Church, which used to be a majority English-speaking congregation, Phan said.
“Many people here today may not come often, but they know this is where they can talk to other Vietnamese,” Phan said.
a double identity
Ngoc Quang Doan, a longtime church member, was one of the refugees who sought asylum in Savannah in 1992. Doan said he and his family “found freedom” in the U.S. Everything was “great” and “new”, remember.
For her children, growing up in an area without many other Asian children created an identity crisis.
Doan’s 16-year-old daughter Lydia said she is one of four Asian students at her high school. But she is the only one who is not an exchange student.
“I grew up trying to change myself,” Lydia said.
Doan’s son Theo, a college sophomore, agreed emphatically after his sister described “hating being Asian.”
“I used to be so embarrassed,” Theo said.
The only time his culture seemed to be recognized was when he was the butt of a joke, when his food was made fun of, or when he was called a racial slur.
“I remember my turning point … when a classmate called me” an Asian racial slur, Theo said.
That was in high school. He realized that he couldn’t go unnoticed and, at that moment, he didn’t want to. “I realized that I shouldn’t abandon my culture,” he said.
For Lydia, that realization was more recent: It came when a shooter killed eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent, at Atlanta-area spas last March. The killings resonated with the Asian-American community as people debated whether it was another targeted hate crime.
Lydia said that forced her to shine a light on the racial hatred that was going on, and she set out to write a story for her school newspaper.
“(But) when I went to interview people about it, no one knew. They were like ‘What are you talking about?’” she recalled.
When her efforts to raise awareness were met with denial and censure from her classmates, that became her turning point.
“Racism was always so casual that I was like, ‘Oh, this is funny, I should laugh,’ but then it hit me…people are getting hurt,” Lydia said. “I needed to stand up for myself…and not try to change for other people.”
Lunar New Year traditions
In Vietnam and other Asian countries that celebrate the holiday, Lunar New Year festivities last for days, sometimes more than a week. Schools and businesses closed to celebrate formally.
While that is not the case for communities celebrating abroad, the sentiment is the same. It is a time for friends and family to gather around food. Platters of succulent pork, rice noodles, egg rolls and marinated tofu make up the New Year’s meal at the Baptist church. Except for a box of fried chicken, all the dishes are homemade.
Children and single adults receive a red envelope containing “lucky money”, an allowance intended to wish the recipient good luck in the new year.
For Lydia, Theo and Phan, second-generation Vietnamese Americans, it’s also a time to reconnect with the country their parents came from.
“This gives us a reason to stay in touch with our culture,” said Lydia, “We have never experienced a true Lunar New Year in an Asian country, but I think this is enough to keep us going.”
The three of them hope to someday experience the new year in Vietnam.
In the meantime, Phan said the church continues to rebuild its community. In the age of COVID, she said the focus has shifted to meeting the needs of those unable to attend her services in person. The congregation began to eat together again, a central part of their fellowship.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Phan said, “(celebrating the Lunar New Year) makes me realize that being Asian is not just this abstract concept. It’s not just people asking me ‘what are you?’ and I say ‘I’m Vietnamese’. It’s not even me understanding Vietnamese when my parents speak it. It’s a completely different cultural world that’s outside of my own that I’m in as well, and we have to hold on to that.”
Nancy Guan is the general assignment reporter covering Chatham County municipalities. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter @nancyguann.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism