Dien Bui remembers celebrating the Vietnamese New Year in his native Saigon in Vietnam as a youth. His family would put five fruits outside his house at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve as an offering to God. The family would pray one by one for prosperity, good health, and safety. The family would light firecrackers before returning inside. Those were the days before the sound of firecrackers turned to the sound of machine gun fire as fighting erupted over control of Saigon. Dien served in the South Vietnamese Army until Saigon was overthrown in 1975 by the Vietcong and he was imprisoned for seven years.
After he was released from prison he wasn’t allowed to hold a good job. His life changed in 1995 when he was finally able to flee his native homeland for a better life in the United States. Like many of his countrymen, Dien settled in City Heights where he has raised two sons.
Seventeen years later, Dien still holds his native customs close to heart even as he’s adopted the American lifestyle. When Dien saw an advertisement to celebrate the Vietnamese New Year at Rosa Parks Elementary School, he jumped at the chance. This year Vietnamese New Year fell on Jan. 23 and was celebrated on the campus three days later. The event began as a small gathering 15 years ago but has expanded to include the whole community. This year an estimated 1,500 students, parents, school personnel and residents like Dien came to celebrate Vietnamese culture. 2012 is the Year of the Dragon.
Kim Trang Dang, vice president of the Vietnamese Community of San Diego, said the event is the only one she knows of that’s held on a San Diego city school campus. She said Rosa Parks is a great place to host it because of its history of embracing multiculturalism. The principal and vice principal wore authentic, handmade Vietnamese dresses. One unique aspect of the celebration was the number of non-Vietnamese parents and students who wore traditional costumes and masks and melded into the festivities as though the traditions were their own.
The joining of multiple cultures to celebrate holidays is a tradition at Rosa Parks. This event was hosted by the Vietnamese Parent Association but it received much support from the Latino Parent Association at the Rosa Parks Parent Center. The Vietnamese Parent Association will return the favor in May to celebrate Mexican Independence Day.
Thu Tong, parent of three Rosa Parks students and lead organizer of the event, said cultural celebrations are important to help her pass down traditions to her children. “It doesn’t matter where we are, we still keep our customs for our children.”
Thu says it’s also important for the “kids to see the parents (from different cultures) working together and supporting one another.” Together the parents made 1,500 South Vietnamese flags by hand to distribute to attendees. Parents also worked together to raise money and cook traditional Vietnamese cuisine for the celebration.