Ancient stories and customs of the East blended with modern American ways at the Vietnamese Women's Day celebration last week in Arlington.
The honored, older women of the Vietnamese community performed a solemn ritual eulogizing the two Trung sisters, who, history says, organized the Vietnamese people into a rebellion in 40 A.D. that forced the Chinese out of the country. The sisters are now honored by the Vietnamese because they are considered to be the first women revolutionaries of the world and because they inspired the desire for freedom within the Vietnamese people, said Nguyen Ngoc Bich, one of the leaders of the Vietnamese community.
"The Trung sisters set a beautiful example for women," said Thuy Long, one of the organizers of the Women's Day celebration at the Vietnamese Community Center. "Men were far superior to women in their day. The surprise is how these women could rise up and save the country," she said.
Long, who came to the U.S. 13 years ago as a college student, said that Women's Day began in Vietnam in the 1950s and that the celebration is still carried on today in Saigon. "Back home, two girls (representing the Trung sisters) ride on elephants in a parade down the street," said Long. "I wish we could do that here."
Duc Thu, respected and honored as an older member of the community, was chosen to lead Saturday's Women's Day ritual. Speaking in Vietnamese, she told the 400 people in attendance about the Trung sisters' achievements. Then at her command, women dressed in ceremonial silk costumes made offerings to the Trung sisters before an altar covered with flowers, decorated candles and gifts. As Duc Thu chanted, incense burned and drums and gongs of the East were sounded.
Drums and electric guitars of the West, however, boomed out over the speakers two hours later, as the younger generation presented a musical variety show.
A four-piece band comprised of Vietnamese students from Northern Virginia Community College opened the show.
Although many of the performances seemed to be aimed at the American Bandstand set, a few musicians appeared in the traditional garb of their native country. One young woman played the dan tranh, an ancient 16-stringed instrument, while younger children presented Vietnamese dances and put on skits about life in the old country.
About 700 people, mostly refugees, attended the all-day celebration. Many of those at the morning ceremony were older people dressed in their best. Ancient-looking banners bearing messages in Vietnamese hung on the walls. Women wearing ao dai (long dresses with panels, worn over trousers) and men wearing suits filed in before the ceremonial altar.
In the afternoon, however, blue jeans and platform shoes appeared on the scene as the younger people arrived for the entertainment.
The same contrast of cultures was apparent at the bazaar going on in the classrooms at the center. People bought and ate the homemade, traditional Vietnamese dishes such as sesame balls, shrimp chips and cha gio (pork, bean noodles, shrimp, mushrooms and sprouts rolled in rice paper). The only beverage served, however, was Coca-Cola.
Asked if she thought the Vietnamese were becoming "Americanized," Long said, "Yes. We don't mind it. We chose to come here, because we want freedom. We got freedom, and we're happy. We should learn the beautiful culture of America and keep ours too . . . The U.S. is like a garden of flowers. Everyone should bring their own flower to it and enjoy the flowers brought by others."
Bich, who said he thought the Women's Day celebration drew a large turnout, stated, "I'm sure a few people had been scared away by the Tet celebration incident (when the Arlington fire marshall ordered the building emptied because of locked exits and overcrowding), but it was not a significant factor."
Long said "a few hundred dollars" were raised at last week's event, but much of it will be spent to pay for expenses.
Long said she hopes any left over money will be used to fund the Vietnamese Community Center.
The Vietnamese now rent the center, housed in Page Elementary School, from the school board for $2,000 per month.
The center's contract with the school will expire this summer, and the Vietnamese will then face options that include renegotiating a new contract with the school board, sharing the facility with an alternative school and moving to another location.
"My personal opinion is that we have to save the Vietnamese Community Center," Long said.