February 3 is Tết Nguyên Đán, the Vietnamese New Year, which is one of the most festive holidays throughout Vietnam. 2011 is the Year of the Cat in Vietnam and over the next several days, families will gather together to eat, share time and gifts with their loved ones. In this guest blog, Room to Read Vietnam Program Director, Nguyen Thi Thanh Thuy, shares a gift-giving tradition she started with her nieces and nephews several years ago—a gift that will last well after the celebration has ended.
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Tet is coming! Indeed, it is already here on the door step. Out on the streets, decorative lights are sparkling, apricot trees are blossoming and a sweet spring breeze is dancing. For Vietnamese people, Tet is just like Christmas for Westerners. It is a time for love and family, a time of reunion, of sharing, of giving, and of hope for a fresh, new start. It is also a time to give presents to family members and friends—especially to children.
The usual gift to children is lucky money stored in red little envelopes. There may also be new clothes or toys. Coming home for this special time with my family, my luggage is full of books for my beloved nieces and nephew. I have made a tradition of giving books to them since they were just a few months old, and my mother tells me that the children are already quite eager and excited to see what books I am bringing for them this year.
When my first niece was born, I got her some children's books as a special gift, which amused and surprised my family, especially my mother. Every day my mother asked me the same question: “How can a little baby enjoy a book?” Since my parents, my siblings and I were never read to at home, I could understand her confusion about my choice of gift. When I learned that, in Western countries, parents read to their children before they go to bed, I decided that even though my parents did not share the value of early reading with their children, as an aunt I should introduce this gift to the new generation.
I started to share books with my eldest niece when she was around four or five months old. Every time I was with her, I found different ways to show her the books, pointing to a picture for her to look at and reading the stories with different voices and emotions. Sometimes I got her little fingers running on each page of a book. Witnessing my performance, her parents and others around us often laughed. But sometimes they also got absorbed in the story and kept quiet when I was reading to the baby. Now that she is seven years old, my niece is able to read many books by herself, and very well. The birth of more children meant more storytelling and gifts of books at every New Year celebration. After observing me read to her daughter and son, my sister also started reading to them herself.
Today, I continue to select books as presents for my nieces and nephew, and now, each child has a shelf filled with all kinds of books. I also keep some with me so that, when we are out with the children, there are books for them to read or just to hold. At home, the children and I talk about the books we have read and often make up stories about characters and objects from real life. To them, learning to read is part of life—just like eating, drinking and sleeping.
Once again for Tet I’m coming home with books. I cannot wait to give the children their gifts for the New Year and to continue the tradition that I have kept with them since they were babies. I know they will learn many other important skills as they get older, but the skill of reading is the most wonderful thing that I can give to them as their auntie.
Read about how Thuy and her team at Room to Read Vietnam worked with the Ministry of Education in Vinh Long province to secure "reading periods" for children. Visit our website to read more about our work in Vietnam.