Vietnamese American community unites over Lunar New Year celebrations at Tết in Boston

Performers+sang+both+the+U.S.+and+Vietnamese+National+Anthems%2C+accompanied+by+a+live+band.

Arden Bastia

Performers sang both the U.S. and Vietnamese National Anthems, accompanied by a live band.

By Arden Bastia and Taylor Blackley

An estimated 3,500 people from all over New England celebrated Tết in Boston on Sunday, ringing in the Vietnamese Lunar New Year and marking the start of the Year of the Tiger.

Guests were entertained by local performance groups and served Vietnamese cuisine cooked up from small businesses and restaurants while they celebrated Vietnamese heritage, culture, and unity. The Vietnamese American Community of Massachusetts and the New England Intercollegiate Vietnamese Student Association have put on this annual festival for 33 years, drawing visitors from all over New England.

This is the biggest Vietnamese event for Theresa Tran, sponsorship director for Tết in Boston.

“Back in Vietnam, this is the biggest celebration. So coming from a large Vietnamese community and a good amount of them being Vietnamese refugees, this is something that they look forward to. This is like their Christmas, right? So it brings the whole community together,” she said.

Over 170 volunteers worked all day Saturday to transform Flynn Cruiseport, bringing in items that represent Vietnamese culture, like motorbikes, lucky charms, and ao dài, the signature silk tunics.

Theresa Tran, the sponsorship director for Tết in Boston, encourages Bostonians to support Vietnamese small businesses year-round. (Photo: Arden Bastia)

“You have the older generation coming in, kind of bringing in their knowledge of how this was celebrated back in Vietnam,” said Tran. “And then you have the younger generation that is eager to learn and that wants to do more to be involved and engaged to also kind of hold with that tradition.”

Tran emphasized that Tết is another way to connect with and promote Vietnamese small businesses throughout Boston, particularly during the pandemic.

Tết in Boston was celebrated virtually in 2021, so this year represented a return to community.

Before the pandemic, the Tết celebration saw crowds of over 9,000, shared Khang Nguyen, the Vietnamese American Community of MA vice president.

As an immigrant, Nguyen understands the importance of community. Nguyen escaped from Vietnam in 1981 when he was only 12 years old. He’s been involved in planning and organizing the Tết event for the better part of 30 years.

“You don’t find another cultural event as big, especially in the wintertime,” he said. For Nguyen, this event is a chance to pass down culture and traditions to younger generations, many of whom were born in the US or came here at a young age.

“They don’t know about the culture,” said Nguyen. “I teach them how to show their culture.”

“Something that’s really important to me is representing my culture,” said Brían Nguyen, the 2021 Miss Perfect Teen titleholder. “Growing up, I was always made to feel ashamed of my culture and all that, and so many different variables of being different. Being here today makes me prideful to be a Vietnamese American.”

Brían Nguyen, a first-generation Vietnamese American, is “very proud” of her culture. “I am here and very proud,” she said. “I know a lot of people are like, oh, you don’t need to be so loud about being so proud of being trans or being Asian. But I believe in being proud of yourself, and it’s so important to embrace yourself.”

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and several members of the City Council were also in attendance at Tết in Boston.

“Every year, this is such a wonderful reminder of how strong our community is, how much we all have to celebrate throughout the year, and how much we can do headed into another bright, prosperous year in 2022,” said Wu during her address to the crowd.

Children and adults alike enjoyed the festivities at Tết in Boston as they celebrated the arrival of the Year of the Tiger and the culture of Vietnam. (Photo: Taylor Blackley)

“This is the Year of the Tiger, and so we all need to continue to be brave and strong and courageous as we come together and show just how much strength Dorchester, Field’s Corner, our Vietnamese community, and the city of Boston have,” she said.

The approval by the Mass Cultural Council of Little Saigon, which is concentrated in Fields Corner, is a way to showcase Vietnamese culture, said Boston Little Saigon volunteer Sandy Nguyen. In May 2021, The City of Boston and Little Saigon received a $75,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“I’m originally from California and the original Little Saigon,” she said. “I’m really glad we’re able to bring this community to Boston.”

Should Mayor Wu and the Boston City Council approve more funding for organizations like Boston Little Saigon, Nguyen says she would love to see more support for Vietnamese small businesses, especially those businesses hard hit by Covid.

Executive Director of the local organization VietAid, Lisette Le, shared in an interview with The Scope last Friday that the Vietnamese community here began to grow in the 1990s.

“Originally, folks actually lived in places like Brighton and East Boston, but as the population grew and with the help of the Catholic Church, they resettled along the Red Line and then in the Fields Corner specifically,” she said, adding that Dorchester Avenue is the “commercial corridor” of the community’s various small businesses.

Traditional foods eaten during Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebrations were sold by local vendors. (Photo: Taylor Blackley)

According to data from the U.S. Census, Dorchester has the largest Vietnamese population in Massachusetts. As of 2018, there were 53,700 Vietnamese living in Boston.

VietAid, says Le, “was a response to a need from the community…as a response to the community needing a place to gather, community rooms, nonprofit spaces or health centers.”

Le pointed out that the community has a high poverty rate and a high limited English speaking population.

According to data from a 2019 study done by the University of Massachusetts Boston Institute for Asian American Studies, the median income for Vietnamese residents is $73,488, the lowest of all minority populations in the city. The poverty rate among Vietnamese Bostonians is 14.9 percent. 61% of the adult Vietnamese population reports speaking English “less than ‘very well,’” according to the study.

Le said that workers in the two biggest industries in the community, nail salons and construction, have faced many challenges in the past few years. “The folks there in the trades working home flooring, plumbing, are not necessarily accessing the jobs at these large construction sites that you see around town. And of course, nail salons have been hit pretty hard with the pandemic.”

Food access for the Vietnamese community is a particular struggle, Le pointed out, adding that “there isn’t a lot of culturally appropriate food that you can get through the mainstream food banks and other distribution sites.”

Since VietAid’s founding in 1994, the organization has assisted over 400 families through housing counseling programs, certified over 630 limited English proficient individuals, and helped thousands apply for unemployment and food assistance. The nonprofit also manages 123 affordable rental and homeownership housing units that provide affordable and quality housing to over 135 families and individuals.

Le says it is times like the Lunar New Year that the community comes together to bond despite the challenges.

“It is the coming home,” she said. “Especially for an immigrant community, you really miss those moments where you’re with folks who are of your own culture and you’re celebrating together…These community gatherings are really important because it’s recreation and celebration and joy all at once.”

 

This story was originally published on The Scope Boston on February 7, 2022.