Lunar New Year celebrations reflect Bay Area diversity

Lunar New Year celebrations reflect Bay Area diversity


Instructor Batzorig Dorj, top, leads a group of seven- and eight-year-old girls through an intricate choreography as they practice a traditional Mongolian folk dance, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 in Oakland, Calif., in preparation for Lunar New Year festivities next week. (D. Ross Cameron/Staff)
Amid the profusion of Lunar New Year celebrations signaled by Monday's new moon, Ariuntuul Avirmed thinks you might not have heard of her festival, Tsagaan Sar.
Mongolian families joyously celebrate the new year each winter with food, prayer, dancing, gifts and enough fermented horse milk to make everyone merry.
"If you have a good feast, a rich feast, your whole year will be good," Avirmed said.
Oakland Chinatown has its predominantly Chinese New Year's Bazaar this weekend, a precursor to San Francisco Chinatown's big parade Feb. 11.
Also this weekend is San Jose's Vietnamese Tet Festival, a destination event for Bay Area Vietnamese-Americans since it launched 30 years ago.
Instructor Batzorig Dorj, left, offers some words of encouragement to seven-year-old Helen Samba as they practice a traditional Mongolian folk dance, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 in Oakland, Calif., in preparation for Lunar New Year festivities next week. (D. Ross Cameron/Staff)
But as the Bay Area's Asian-American population approaches 2 million, its cultural diversity has grown.
Each coming of the Lunar New Year brings new festivities to homes, community centers and banquet halls across the region.
"It's the only time we have the chance to meet all the relatives, the chance to show our kids what we do, the food we eat," said Berkeley resident Gana Nasam, who moved to California from Mongolia a little more than a decade ago.
Tsagaan Sar, which means White Moon, won't actually begin until February, a month later than the Chinese New Year, but Nasam's family is getting ready.
Her 7-year-old daughter, Helen, was pirouetting to a throaty Mongolian tune Thursday night to prepare for a dance performance at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center.
Although the Bay Area will abound with New Year celebrations in the coming weeks and months, the center is one of the few organizations that tries to incorporate the disparate traditions into one event.
Mongolian youth dancers, Korean drummers, Japanese Butoh performers and others are participating in the Feb. 4 event in the heart of Oakland Chinatown.
"If we're pan-Asian, and we kind of collaborate, we have strength in that," said Herna Cruz-Louie, the event's organizer. "There's definitely been a greater mix of families moving into the downtown area."
The working-class district has bucked the trend of other urban American Chinatowns that are losing Chinese immigrants to the suburbs. At the same time, the city's Asian-majority districts have expanded and diversified.
The city's Korean-American population nearly doubled in the past decade, according to the census, and neighborhoods just southeast of Oakland Chinatown are home to large numbers of immigrant families from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, all with their own New Year traditions that begin between now and April.
While many holiday events cater to elder immigrants who miss the traditions they grew up with, Cruz-Louie said her event, now in its eighth year, tries to engage Asian-American teenagers and young adults who were born in the U.S.
"The kids realize they actually like doing it. It's a connection," she said. "The young people actually want to learn it, partly because they have such a separation from the homeland."
People of all faiths celebrate the New Year using a lunar calendar, but many of the traditions are rooted in Buddhism, said Jian Ying, abbot of Sunnyvale's Chung Tai Zen Center.
He said he has "invited everyone" and expects Buddhist adherents of Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Singaporean, Malaysian and non-Asian descent to attend a ceremony Monday morning.
"It's a spirit of sharing, to give what we have, to share what we have," he said. "That's the Buddhist way. It's not just within the cultural boundaries."
Another connection that the Bay Area's first round of Lunar New Year celebrations will share this weekend: They all can expect rain. Not to worry, say organizers of Oakland Chinatown's outdoor festival.
"Rain is a good sign," said Jennie Ong, director of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. "It means abundance for the year."

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