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In With the New for U.S. Versions of Asian Holidays

TIMES STAFF WRITER

While most of her relatives in Hong Kong have been preparing for weeks in anticipation of Tuesday’s Lunar New Year celebration, the holiday will be much less elaborate for Chui Ho, who will make dinner for her family and hand out the traditional red envelopes of lucky money.

Ho, 43, remembers the extensive preparations in her native land. “You automatically have two weeks off from work, and you can clean your house, prepare food, get new clothes, a haircut, buy flowers,” she said.

But Chinese New Year in the United States will be different from the festivities of her childhood. “I don’t know how to cook all the traditional food, and I don’t have all the ingredients. And going to see the parades in Chinatown depends on my schedule, my husband’s work schedule,” she said.

Over the years, the Vietnamese Tet and Chinese New Year holidays--which celebrate longevity, good health, prosperity and the return of spring--have changed to encompass the demands of day-to-day life in the United States. Now, many Asian Americans have adapted their own ways of welcoming the new year.

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“As with all ethnic groups, by the third or fourth generation, the meaning of festivals has changed,” said UC Irvine sociology professor John Liu. “A lot of the rituals that would have a lot of meaning for the first generation would not have the same meaning--or any meaning at all--for the third and fourth generation.”

Ho said she also gives presentations about the Chinese New Year--explaining the meaning of dragon dances and lucky money--to her children’s classmates.

“They were born here, and I want them to identify with the culture, but I want them to be proud of their Chinese background,” Ho said of her children, ages 5, 9, 12 and 16. “I do Chinese presentations at school to let others be aware of the Chinese culture and to let my own children be proud of it.”

Vu Le’s family celebration of Tet has been delayed until next weekend. “It’s more convenient,” said Le, 20, a UC Irvine student. Aunts, uncles and cousins will gather at his parents’ Mission Viejo home for a New Year’s feast. Small children, given pennies to bet with, will join in the gambling and games after dinner.

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Le said many customs will still be observed at his family’s celebration of the beginning of the year 4693, the year of the pig. Li xi, the lucky money in bright red and gold envelopes, will be given out to all children.

“We still . . . wish the elders good luck and prosperity for the coming year. That has always been the tradition and it always will,” Le said.

But other things have changed. “For a lot of Vietnamese families, New Year’s is the biggest holiday. But now that’s changing. Now it’s Christmas, maybe because they get more money,” he said.

Le said that while he is sad to see the tradition go, “on the other hand, after many generations, (the younger generations’) ties to the motherland aren’t as strong.”

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“If history is any indicator of immigrant celebrations, the younger generations won’t take it as seriously as the older generations,” he said. “All they have is what was given to them by their parents. It’s a balance between cultural awareness and American identity. They should have both.”

For Le Nguyen, 19, Tet is a time of renewing family ties. “New Year’s is more of a family bonding type of thing. I’m not sure why we keep doing it, I just like doing it because it’s fun,” said Nguyen, a UC Irvine student.

“I will probably keep on celebrating it in the Vietnamese community as I do now, because I’m a part of the community and I plan to be in the future as well,” he added. “But I don’t know the customs as well as my parents would. Each generation you lose customs.”

For many Chinese Americans, who are more scattered in Orange County than the Vietnamese population, the New Year’s holiday has become more casual than it is in their homeland.

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“We don’t have a gathering point here, a social place. We have nobody to celebrate with but our own families,” said Louis Chang, president of the South Coast Chinese Culture Assn. “But it’s coming back, because more Chinese are here now. We have recent immigrants and more places for us to go.”

Despite the changes brought on by time and acculturation, most say they want to preserve as much of their heritage as they can.

“We want to keep the tradition and carry on our culture in the same fashion as our ancestors did,” said Ted Nguyen, an officer of the Union of Vietnamese Student Assns., which sponsors the Tet celebration at Golden West College tomorrow. “For American-born Vietnamese, their parents or older sisters and brothers will guide them. It’s our responsibility as Vietnamese college students to carry on our culture.”

This year’s Little Saigon Tet festival, scheduled for Feb. 3-5, will feature skits with traditional themes about arranged marriages and the value of education and gratitude, but the festival’s theme, “Bridging Cultures,” signals a change in the usual format.

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“We want to use this as a bridge to promote our culture and learn about others,” said Derrick Nguyen, the festival’s coordinator. “We have Latino, Filipino, Chinese and Japanese performers.”

Booths at the festival will provide information about free Vietnamese language software, equal employment and medical care in an effort to incorporate the community’s new concerns.


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