SAN JOSE -- On a sunny and warm winter day, the kind that inspires optimism no matter what, hundreds of young Vietnamese Americans on Sunday started their lunar New Year by strolling in elegant "ao dai" dresses or men's robes, dancing to traditional songs and generally keeping their culture alive without the politics of war getting in the way. The kids have taken over.
"I think the priorities now are education and careers," said Mikelle Le, 43, who was a child when her family fled the communist takeover in 1975. She is a Santa Clara County mental health worker and a martial arts coach. "Pretty much this is home for us now. I think the older generation understands that. My parents told us there is no need to go back and fight."
Lieh Dinh, 50, still remembers the nightmarish sounds of artillery fire and bombs, but she doesn't lecture her children on the Cold War politics of the time. She prefers to teach them the importance of global human rights here and now.
"We came here to live in freedom and be free of war, and we have," she said. "I want my children to believe in equal rights and human rights, not just in America but everywhere." Her 13-year-old son, Jeremy, wore a bright red jacket, the men's version of the ao dai. His little sister, Jenna, 11, wore a girl's version, which was much more modest than the ao dais worn by young women in the fashion contest.
The Dinh kids said their mom did not drag them to the festival or force them to wear the traditional garb. "I'm cool with it," Jeremy said about his jacket. "I think I'm learning a lot today."
At another booth, a 30-year-old Buddhist monk, the Rev. Lian Yi, talked about the challenges of attracting more young Asian-Americans to the Purple Lotus Temple in Union City.
"It's definitely more difficult if you focus only (on) the meditation," the U.S.-born monk said. Yi's parents immigrated here from Taiwan. "You have to offer more activities." Those include charity events and holiday toy drives that are popular among young Asian-Americans.
There was also diversity among the young set. It was safe to say most were born in the United States, but there seemed to be a fair amount of recent arrivals, too.
Selena Tran, 30, who arrived only two years ago, wore an elegant, conservative all-white ao dai dress. Asked where she lived in Vietnam, she said, "Ho Chi Minh City," and quickly hushed her lips with a smile. Her husband, Steve Nguyen, laughed and said, "It's OK. Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City. Nobody really talks about that stuff anymore."
Meanwhile, student organizer Vinhyen Nguyen sported a modern leather jacket over her deep blue ao dai dress. Born here, she said she was more interested in attracting young teens and children to cultural festivals like Tet before the culture disappears entirely.
At the same time, Paul Lam, 41, a longtime friend of the Dinh family, said that cultural retention is more difficult than it looks, because cultural change is happening everywhere in different ways. While some Americans fear their national culture may give way to the cultures of new immigrants, he saw the opposite during his visits to Vietnam.
"We're trying to slow it down over here," he said. "But over there they want to westernize as fast as they can. It's confusing."
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