Why a medical interpreter was surprised to see Vietnamese immigrant patients at California hospitals around Lunar New Year

The World
Smoke in front of a man, with remnants of firecrackers on the ground

I was fully booked during the Lunar New Year, with back-to-back patients in both Oakland and San Francisco, California.

I work with non- and limited-English speaking Vietnamese patients as a freelance medical interpreter at local hospitals. Outside the time dealing with doctors and nurses about medical conditions and diagnoses, I spend a good part of my time chatting with these patients.

This is what I value the most about this work. I’ve learned a great deal about the Vietnamese immigrant experience from their individual stories, which form the foundation of the Vietnamese American community. My medical interpretation doesn’t fully pay the bills — but I’m reluctant to give it up.

Thursday was Lunar New Year’s Eve and Friday was the first day of the New Year, or Tết in Vietnamese. It’s the year of the dog. From the colors of the flowers to the shapes of the fruit, from cleaning the house to buying new clothes, everything surrounding Lunar New Year’s festivities are thought to predict the state of health and wealth in the new year.

So going to see doctors and seeking medical treatments is out of the question. It would be unthinkable for Vietnamese people to go to a hospital around this time in Vietnam.

But we’re not in Vietnam anymore.

The author lounges by a tree next to his boombox, and an unidentified woman
Sonny Lê and his ever-present boombox, a few months after he arrived in San Francisco. He was 17 years old.Courtesy of Sonny Lê

I lived in Vietnam as a child, until I was 15 and my family fled war on a boat in 1980. In addition to a new haircut and new clothes, as children we were told to be on good behavior — no fighting or even raising our voices. The adults went out of their way to be nice to each other, to show that they’ve put aside their differences for the sake of harmony, not unlike American families during Thanksgiving gatherings. (I arrived in the US on Thanksgiving day in 1981.)

Vegetarian meals are served on the first day of the Lunar New Year in the hopes of wiping away misdeeds from the past year, resetting the clock for the coming year. From ancestral offerings to calligraphy, from firecrackers to burning incense, Vietnamese Lunar New Year traditions are a hodgepodge of Buddhism, Taoism, animism, Confucianism and agrarian village culture meeting modern consumerism.

Many groups celebrate the Lunar New Year — Chinese, Korean, Mongolian, Tibetan, Vietnamese. Among them, Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants in the US in particular often talk about values and traditions as if they’re static, unchanged. Every Lunar New Year, the “dragon dance” and the bamboo flutes, the colors of San Francisco’s Chinese New Year parade — these “traditions” grate on me. Not because they’re bad, but because they have actually changed in Asia. You don’t find them in China, you don’t find them in Vietnam. It’s an American mythology about Asian cultures.

A friend of mine told me her father refused to see a doctor around the new year; he even refused to take a neighbor to the doctor. However, for many, the reality of life in America has forced them to adapt, to let go of age-old cultural practices.

Things are changing. I had five patients on New Year’s Eve and eight on New Year’s Day, mostly elderly people. They often teach their children myths about their New Year traditions, trying to hold on to what they can for the next generation. But when they speak to me, a medical interpreter, they are more honest. They know that things have changed and that their health is more important than the potential of a bad omen for a new year.

I asked one 76-year-old patient on Thursday what he thought of having to go see the doctor for his kidney problem on New Year’s Eve. “I’m lucky that there is a doctor to see me,” he replied. “If I were in Vietnam, I’d need to wait for at least two weeks after the New Year. And if something happened to me during the New Year, I’d be out of luck unless I had a lot of money.”

“Wouldn’t being in the hospital on New Year’s Eve bring bad luck?” I asked.

“I’m being taken care of. I guess that means I’m already lucky,” he responded, with a laugh.

Sonny Lê is discussing the new year, traditions and health in the Global Nation Exchange on Facebook. Join him.

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