Culture Culture

07/02/2019 - 07:46

In the old days

It is unclear since when people, when recalling their past memories, would begin with the words “in the old days”.


I cannot put my finger on the power of the word “old”, but each time I hear those “in the old days” words, there’s a certain attraction. Is it truly “in the old days”, though? No one has ever set out a concrete timeline for a memory. No one has ever specified how many years can be considered “the old days” to contrast with the “nowadays”. 

Remembering last year’s Tet, when my 10-year-old nephew watched as I cleaned my house, he said in a worried and sad tone: "I don't know if I would get any lucky money this Tet. In the old days, I received a lot of lucky money.” I laughed at his comment. “In the old days? When was ‘in the old days’?”. “When I was younger.” Oh, even my nephew has “the old days”. 

Tet is always an opportunity to spend time with family, telling stories. At the coffee table, beside the fire, next to the jam pan ... my mother always told stories about our family "In the old days, my grandparents really liked this dish", "In the old days, our family ...", "In the old days, we had to prepare for Tet a whole month in advance...”.

“The old days” of my mother, who was born in 1930, compared to now, are truly “old”. The stories of my mother always begin with the memories of her father, my grandfather; that he studied at Quoc Hoc High School and was good at martial arts, strong and hot-tempered.

He used to get into fights with French soldiers waiting at Truong Tien Bridge to tease Dong Khanh girls when they left school. Many times, he was arrested to the police station and my great-grandfather, then being Te Tuu Quoc Tu Giam (a local official), had to go bail him out. After that time, he hit a French soldier bleeding profusely, since then he escaped to join the revolution.

That is my mother’s past. Immediately after the reunification of the country, my grandfather from Hanoi came to Hue to visit his daughter, ending the "in the old days” period in his daughter's heart with a rain of tears of joy and sadness after nearly 45 years of separation. My mother, a mother of 7 children, cried like a child when she saw her father again. And there are so many similar stories of those old days when the country was at war, divided, separated and when the country fell into the difficult years after the reunification ... With my mother, her “old days” had a happy ending!

But sometimes those old days are not so far away. Perhaps, it is just a way to talk about a time of previous deprivation. There are stories that my children nowadays could not believe, such as "in the old days, when I went to school, I only hoped for a bowl of fried rice with salt”. My child was surprised with the fact that breakfast contained rice: “Eating rice for breakfast!”. Or with the story that I had to wait for new clothes... “Sometimes, Tet had arrived but grandma did not have money to buy me new clothes.”

Those were the Tet holidays of the 1980s and 1990s, mothers like mine had to save and calculate between the many things they had to spend on to prepare for the three days of Tet, the offerings, and new things for their children. In the old days, if we received a pair of sandals, then we wouldn’t receive new clothes. If we got a new outfit, then there were no sandals for us. Therefore, the mothers back then would buy clothes that were a bit bigger so that they could be worn for two years. Perhaps that is why there is a saying “happy in the oversized Tet outfit”.

In the sense of those of the 6X, 7X generations like us, the Lunar New Year back then was so sacred. All things new and beautiful were saved for the first day of the New Year. I still remember when my mother bought me a new pair of sandals; up to the 30th, I only dared to wear them... on the bed.

Tet clothes (which is just a normal outfit) were even more cherished – often called our vía outfit- which we tried on a couple of times, inhaled all the fragrant smell of the new fabric, cuddled up next to it, picked it up and then put it down carefully. We all waited for only one moment: New Year morning.

I also often let my heart get lost “in the old days” of Hue - a fairyland of my childhood with Kings - Queens - Princesses - Princes - castles. Now I understand that Hue has these own specialties because for nearly 150 years, Hue was the capital of the whole country, the capital of the 13 reigns of Nguyen Kings. But in the old days, Hue Citadel appeared in me through my mother’s stories "in the old days, this dish was offered to the king”, "in the old days, only the king could go through this gate, if common people walked through this gate, they would be... decapitated! ...". Therefore, the Citadel to me is like a faraway fairytale of the ancient past.

Now, in the afternoons of the 30th (Lunar year), thanks to my work, I often go to Dai Noi to see the ceremony of Erecting Nêu pole, recreated by Hue Monuments Conservation Center. The altars are displayed outdoors in front of Thai Hoa Palace, in front of The Mieu, creating a cozy atmosphere. I imagined the annual Ban Soc (giving the calendar) ceremony in the first morning of the December Lunar month with the meaning of giving time to the hundred families of the Nguyen Kings that Tran Te Xuong's verses evoke long, long time ago: “Spring was given from that day/ Spring appears in every house".

... I can smell the fragrant aroma and the mild scent of the skinny old apricot tree that has steadfastly survived Hue's harsh winter, though it only has a few fragile blossoms , it still shines a regal golden color. Looking at the apricot tree, I think about the hidden vitality and beauty of nature and of Hue people, and of the Vietnamese people. People are willing to forget the burdens of the heart to love again, to live with generosity, like the writer Hermann Hess said, "Even with the wretched pain / I still love this crazy world."

I love Hue as many children of Hue who were born in this land as well as many people who call Hue their second home. Everyone has those “in the old days” memories. The period of 10 years, 20 years, 30, 40 or 50 years ... the numbers, although physically different, psychologically still carry the same meaning as the color of the memory, so "the old days” does not have numbers but tells life stories. 

My aunt this year has passed the age of 90, every year she wants her children to take her to Hue for Tet. When Da Vien Bridge was inaugurated, she went across it and said: "Hue has changed a lot. In the past, when I lived in Hue, the scenery was much more melancholy.” Then she asked if the students of Dong Khanh School (now Hai Ba Trung High School) still wear áo dài to school. She smiled when I answered, “Yes, they still do. Not only the girls of Dong Khanh and Quoc Hoc schools but at all the other high schools, girls wear white áo dài to school. Even the female civil servants of Hue also wear áo dài to work.”

The rule of development is always have new things. Hue also has many new things and Hue is also trying to preserve the values of the past in family discipline, morality and lifestyle. Sometimes there is regret for what has been lost with the expectation of "When will it be until the past" but the past is also the present.

The story of the past is often not heavy on material values but heavy on spiritual values and attitude of life, and I also love to tell stories of the past for my children in the New Year. These are very quiet days for each person to enter the new spring, becoming one year older and wiser. 

Story: Xuan An

Photos: Tuong Vy