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Tet Memories Old and New

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Finally, the dragons descend.

“Mua Lan! Mua Lan! [Dragon dance! Dragon dance!]” 9-year-old Minh Tan Mai yelled. He had waited for almost two hours Saturday for the traditional dance in which large dragon heads worn by performers move to the rhythm of pounding drums.

“I’ve waited forever for the dragon dance,” Minh Tan added before running toward the colorful prancing beasts, leaving his mother to shake her head in amused exasperation.

“Even if that’s all that he associates with Tet, that’s OK,” said Trang Mai, 45, of Santa Ana. “When he gets older, he’ll learn its real meaning, but the fact that he’s having fun and enjoying this, it’s a start.”

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Like many older Vietnamese Americans, Mai took her two children, Minh Tan and 9-month-old Ngoc, to the Tet Festival at Golden West College, hosted by the Union of Vietnamese American Student Assns., so they could learn about the Lunar New Year. For the Vietnamese, Tet is the most important cultural and religious holiday, a time for beginnings and giving thanks to one’s ancestors.

As the children ran around, playing games, eating sweet treats, and clapping at the dragons and firecrackers, their parents and grandparents waxed nostalgic about Tet festivities in their homeland and how they hoped their children would continue the celebration.

“I go to these festivals every year, taking the children with me,” Mai said. “I want them to know the tradition that dates back thousands of years. I want to expose them to everything, the dragon dance, the appreciation and respect the young have for the old, the li xi,” money in bright-red envelopes, given for good luck.

Thao-Ann Nguyen, 2, didn’t quite understand why her parents dressed her in a red ao dai, the Vietnamese traditional flowing dress with long slits on either side. But she smiled and clapped at the attention she and other similarly dressed children were getting as strangers stopped to touch and admire her clothes.

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“The more we could expose Thao-Ann to these traditions,” said her father, Khanh Nguyen, 36, of Anaheim, “the better and more enriched her life would be.”

Karen Taylor of Fullerton recently adopted 2-year-old Haley from Vietnam. Saturday, Karen brought her parents, sisters, two nieces and her new daughter to the festival so she could share the sights, sounds, smells and tastes from the country where her daughter came from, she said.

“This brings back so many memories, memories that I will tell Haley about as she grows up,” Taylor said as the girl, wearing a light-blue ao dai, looked around in wonder.

Hoang Le, 60, of Westminster brought his 4- and 5-year-old grandchildren to the festival so that he too could share with them his own special memories. The grandchildren pretty much exhausted him, but Le watched them with pride.

“I’m advanced in age, but I still go,” Hoang said as he enjoyed a green papaya salad, doused in soy sauce. “I wouldn’t miss this for anything. I guess I’m afraid my grandchildren would never know the Tet celebrations that I knew and I want to teach them while they are still young. The holiday is timeless, if we continue to celebrate it.”


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