The glory of Dorchester is its diversity. And since we are packed tightly together, there is no way to avoid exposure to outside influences – it’s as if we are marinating in diversity. The unfamiliar customs, both the old and the new, that we encounter every day are re-shaping the way that we live as a community. It’s all very cosmopolitan, in a working-class kind of way.
Variety is what makes life in Dorchester so interesting and full of surprises, like the sight of a big yellow dragon shaking its way down Charles Street in Fields Corner last Saturday. The dragon was en route to the Vietnamese Lunar Celebration hosted by VietAID, where over 300 people, including individuals representing a range of ethnic backgrounds, had gathered to celebrate Tet 2016.
Inside, the Great Hall of VietAID was decorated with paper trees strung with electric lights; giant cherry blossoms adorned the stage backdrop; and the podium supported an altar that had been set to overflowing with fruit and flowers.
Outside, a drum was beating and cymbals were clashing as two acrobats slipped inside the elaborate yellow dragon costume. Things got under way when the fuse to a very long packet of firecrackers was ignited. The firecrackers had been suspended from a tree limb high overhead, and went off in a succession of deafening explosions meant to blast away any and all ill will on this day of new beginnings.
The color guard marched in with boots and green camouflage fatigues. One member of the guard had a “Vietnam 1971” patch sewn onto the shoulder of his uniform. Many old soldiers in the audience were past middle age, but they still carried themselves with military bearing, and many wore US Army dress uniform. They are all proud of their service.
The Vietnamese and the US national anthems were sung, followed by a moment of silence in tribute to heaven and to ancestors.
Hue Pham, Executive Director of VietAID welcomed everybody and reviewed the many services that the organization provided to the Dorchester community over the past year. Elected officials and other civil servants came forward to give thanks and offer salutations. State Rep. Evandro Carvalho, an immigrant himself, recognized the Vietnamese immigrant community’s successful efforts to assimilate in the community politically, culturally, and in business. Bao-Toan Than, president of the Vietnamese-American Community of Massachusetts, addressed the audience and talked about the 50,000 Vietnamese-Americans now living across the state.
The annual Kitchen God report to the Emperor of Heaven was presented in song. One little girl sang each stanza of the report in Vietnamese first; then, an older counterpart repeated them in English. There was a lot of singing in the entertainment, usually by attractive ladies and young girls wearing long and slender gowns of beautiful fabric. At the conclusion of the program, most of the adults went upstairs for lunch, while the children lined up to receive little red envelopes full of “Lucky Money.”
Tet is the Vietnamese New Year, the most important holiday in Vietnam. This year is the Year of the Monkey. Using the name of an animal as the name of the year is a practice that probably dates back to an era when calendars and ledger books were not in use. It was simple way to keep track of time; the same animals are recycled every twelve years.
A fortune-teller might say that a person born in the Year of the Monkey would possess certain traits and characteristics sometimes attributed to monkeys, such as being curious, quick, and active. There are many superstitions associated with Tet, but the real tradition of the holiday is founded on something solid: the family.
Returning to family is an important aspect of Tet. For many Vietnamese families, staying connected can be difficult to arrange, so longstanding practices are changing to adapt to a different society. Instead of large family gatherings, Vietnamese-Americans look to the wider community to help recreate a sense of belonging, which is what Tet is all about. And if the streets cannot be filled in a jubilant festival, at least people can meet during the two weeks before and after Tet, at celebrations held in Buddhist Temples, Catholic churches, community centers, and other venues. A lot of people show up.
The dancers hidden under the guise of the dragon must be very busy this month. They perform what is known as the Mua Lan or “Lion Dancing” (the Lan is an animal between a lion and a dragon). In the Great Hall, to the accompaniment of drum and cymbals, an impromptu play was enacted on the stage and in the aisles. The two young men inside the dragon costume jumped up and twirled around energetically as they were being chased by a fat man wearing a mask.
The fat man waved a fan and drank from a gourd as he pursued the dragon. Another man in regular clothes followed along, trying to hold a broomstick topped with a paper moon above all the action. Eventually the gyrations of the dragon subsided somewhat, and the fat man emptied the imaginary contents of the gourd into the dragon’s muzzle. After that, members of the audience rushed the stage, and pushed red envelopes into the flapping paper mouth of the dragon, making the cash deposits that are believed to be installments against bad luck.
As the beating of the drum and the clanging of the cymbals increased to a crescendo, the dragon rose up, reared its big yellow head, and rolled out a tongue that looked like a felt scroll. In fact, it was a scroll, inscribed with Vietnamese calligraphy. Most likely it read: Chuc Mung Nam Moi (Happy New Year)!