“Thôi nôi”: Vietnamese 1st Birthday Celebration

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Vietnamese-American
Age: 49
Occupation: Nail Technician
Residence: Iowa
Date of Performance/Collection: 5/1/2021
Primary Language: Vietnamese
Other Language(s): English

Main Piece:

A: It’s like a birthday. Your friends, family [are invited], cook food, give you something like– like baby clothes, toys… but it’s different like, I have to do a tray. I put on scissors… hammer… mirror… cái này là gì– chỉ, everything like on the tray. Then let the baby pick. The first thing the baby picks up, we think, “Oh, in the future, she will do thợ may, thợ cắt tóc, một cái người designer, hay là bác xĩ, này kia đó. 

  • “ It’s like a birthday. Your friends, family [are invited], cook food, give you something like– like baby clothes, toys… but it’s different like, I have to do a tray. I put on scissors… hammer… mirror… what is this– just, everything like on the tray. Then let the baby pick. The first thing the baby picks up, we think, “Oh, in the future, she will be a seamstress, a hairdresser, a designer, or a doctor, this and that.

Me: So what kinds of things are on the tray? You said scissors, thread…

A: Everything you can think of…. But, don’t put anything like– not lucky. 

Me: Did you do this celebration for anyone?

A: You. 

(Dad interjects: You did?

A: Yeah!

D: What did she pick?

A: Nó bóc cái gương với là cái micro. Chac là [our son] không có làm.

  • “She picked up the mirror and a microphone. I don’t think we did one for [our son].”

D: That’s why he’s not going anywhere [we all laugh])

Background:

My mother is the one telling me this story. This is a traditional way of celebrating the baby’s first birthday in Vietnam. Thus my mother, who was born and raised in Vietnam until immigrating to the United States in the 1990s, became familiar with this practice while she was there. She likes this celebration because of the fun of predicting what the baby’s future career will be, however, she does not fully believe in it. She explains to me that when she was younger, before she had me, she believed that these predictions would come true, but now, it is simply a fun activity. 

Context:

This is a transcript of our live conversation. We were in the process of eating dinner when I asked my mom if birthdays are celebrated in Vietnam. She responded no. Instead, certain milestones of a baby’s life are celebrated. She explains the baby’s 1st birthday after explaining how guarded the baby’s first month of life is.

Thoughts:

I had known other cultures in Asia had this celebration of a baby’s first large milestone, such as Korea’s 100-day birthday, where they practice homeopathic magic to predict the baby’s future career, but I did not know that there was something similar in Vietnamese culture. To further explain how this is homeopathic magic, the act of the baby choosing symbols of a career mimics the career the child will have in the future. This is the first time I learned about this celebration. After my parents’ generation immigrated to the United States, I was never old enough to recognize if my cousins’ first birthdays were celebrated in this traditional Vietnamese practice. When one of my cousins had children, at that point, our family celebrated birthdays in the American way, as my mother explained that birthdays aren’t celebrated in Vietnamese culture aside from a baby’s first milestones. Such is a common occurrence in folk practices pertaining to the life cycle, where a baby’s life is more unpredictable in the beginning stages, and thus is celebrated when they pass markers that indicate better chances of survival. Though my mother said she doesn’t believe in the prediction, it is interesting that you could make a case that my selection was pretty accurate (I am a theatre major).