Born in a close-knit Chinese-Vietnamese family with nearly 20 members as I was, I have been taught a lot about Lunar New Year customs prevalent in both cultures since I was young.
One of the most common pieces of advice I was given was to avoid being the first guest to a house on Lunar New Year Day unless explicitly invited. Whether the guest's zodiac sign is compatible with the host's will decide how well the family will do in the new year.
I grew up remaining at home with my cousins while my grandmother, mother and aunts would visit a pagoda right after the New Year dawns. But, on their return, only those who with a compatible zodiac sign could enter the house first. I remember once when we were so excited about the New Year that we accidentally got out of the house to gather with our neighbors. Later, when we realized the mistake, none of us dared return to the house until the "chosen" member made their entry.
That is to say I followed the advice every Tet without question. So it caught me off-guard when a colleague asked me if the practice is still relevant now that young people seem to be more interested in western astrology rather than the fact that they are born in a monkey or rat year of the Vietnamese zodiac.
The answer is definitely yes, going by the dozens of fortune-telling and fengshui websites that instruct us on how to find compatible guests. Even popular news websites publish guides meticulously compiled by fengshui experts who stress that the chosen guest's personalities are as important as their zodiac, and so easygoing, generous and happy-go-lucky people should do the honors.
Surprisingly, my family's answers to the question now range from an emphatic yes to amused chuckles.
My aunt, who is in her mid-sixties and a Buddhist, for instance, is a firm believer, while my mother, who runs a motorcycle parts business in Chinatown, encourages the custom. She says since "it is better to avoid signs of bad luck," those who are mourning or whose zodiacs indicate a bad year should not be the first guest. However, it is fine if someone whose compatibility is not clear-cut accidentally makes the first visit, she says.
My 86-year-old grandfather, on the other hand, simply finds the question amusing, saying, "We do what our ancestors told us to."