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The Americanization of Tet : Vietnamese Celebrate Their Key Holiday Season--but Remember How It Was

February 02, 1989|JOHN NEEDHAM | Times Staff Writer

Years ago and an ocean away, it was a time of both exploding fireworks and holidays that appeared to stretch on forever, a calming hiatus marked by days of carefully observed rituals. Foods seen just once a year appeared on the table. Relatives gathered. The war that seemingly never ended at least gave the illusion of being suspended for a time.

In the weeks before the celebration of the festival called Tet, "you could feel it, you could feel it in the air, you knew something happy was coming," remembered Tram Do, 24.

That was then, in Vietnam. And now, in America? "We don't have all the feelings for it," he said. "It just comes."

It came last weekend, in Centennial Regional Park in Santa Ana, and it will come again this weekend, in the Little Saigon section of Westminster and Garden Grove. Orange County is now home to 100,000 Vietnamese, the largest number in any area outside Vietnam, and the two festivals are the most important holidays of the year for the community.

But they aren't what they used to be.

Peter Pham sells real estate for Century 21 on Harbor Boulevard in Santa Ana now. The Tet holidays he remembered with the most pleasure were the ones of his youth in North Vietnam, before the country was partitioned in 1954, when Pham was 10 and his family fled south. In 1975 he escaped the Communists again, leaving for the United States.

"To me, the most important tradition in the Tet celebration is the homecoming," he said. "It's time for family members to renew their relationships and to celebrate the start of the year and to look to the future." And for children, it's a time for gifts.

In Vietnam, Tet as often as not meant a month's vacation, allowing plenty of time to travel to birthplaces and celebrate. Here, Vietnamese are spread out, and the holiday lasts 3 days at most, Pham said, even when the families are together. His parents are still in Vietnam. He hasn't seen them since 1975.

As a result, Tet is not as big a holiday for him as it once was, he said, "because without my parents and grandparents the meaning is not the same."

Dr. Co Pham agrees. Tet is "more . . . Americanized already," the obstetrician/gynecologist said.

He worries too that his children "are too Americanized. They know nothing about their background."

Yet he will bring them to the Tet celebration in Little Saigon, "so we can have the feeling that we're back home."

Tet is the lunar new year, determined each year by the movement of the moon and starting at the first new moon after the sun enters Aquarius, which means it falls between Jan. 21 and Feb. 19. This year the date is Feb. 6, the start of the Year of the Snake, succeeding the Year of the Dragon and preceding the Year of the Horse.

It is a major holilday in China and on Taiwan, and for communities of overseas Chinese, but goes largely unnoticed by virtually all other countries aside from Vietnam.

The lunar calendar is broken down into 12-year cycles, each with its own animal. No matter which of the 12 animals marks the year, the end of the year is characterized by a settling of accounts and a paying of debts.

Some Little Saigon merchants continue the practice of pre-Communist Vietnam and of Taiwan and Hong Kong of holding end-of-year sales as an ostensible way of raising money to pay off loans, said Chuoc Vo-Ta, executive director of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce.

Another key element of Tet is prayers to and for parents and relatives now dead. Buddhists use household shrines; Catholics attend church for special Masses.

One custom that has survived the pilgrimage from Asia to North America is the thorough cleaning of the house in the waning days of the old year, said Tram Do, a teachers' aide at Morningside Elementary School in Garden Grove. When the new year begins, dust remains undisturbed for the first day or three, lest good luck be swept out with the dirt.

Another custom followed fairly closely--even by people who laugh nervously as they dismiss it as "superstition"--involves the first person to enter the house in a new year. Tradition has it that the initial visitor will determine the luck of the house and its occupants for the rest of the year.

A lot of thought is given to deciding who will be invited to be the first to enter. Vietnamese say their parents often send the youngest person in the house outside just before midnight, with instructions to re-enter as soon after midnight as possible. Several Vietnamese said they know of people who have declined to be the first to enter a house, because if the family runs into bad luck during the year, that first person is often blamed.

A major element of Tet, especially for children, is li xi , or the giving of money in a traditional red envelope. As children get older, the amount of money they receive usually dwindles, so most Vietnamese speak of the Tet festivals of their childhoods as their happiest.

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