As you know already, today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the national holiday when we celebrate Dr. King’s life and legacy of racial equality and justice. This year, Dr. King’s birthday is accompanied by another very auspicious and momentous occasion — the inauguration of Barack Obama to be our next President.
It is also during this time of the year that billions of people around the world prepare to celebrate Lunar New Year (occurring on January 26 this year). For Vietnamese Americans like me, our version of Lunar New Year is of course Tet. As I describe in more detail, Tet traditionally is a celebration of rebirth and renewal.
Each year, in our effort to commemorate Lunar New Year and Tet, my wife and I usually do a small presentation in our daughter’s elementary school class about the traditions of Tet. We will be doing this year’s presentation tomorrow in her class. Since the presentation will be almost a week before actual Tet, we thought we would try to do a presentation that links these important events together — Dr. King’s Day, Obama’s inauguration, and Tet.
The theme of our presentation is the title of this post — “King, Obama, Tet, and the Diversity of Change” and I’d like to summarize it here for you (fyi, the text is simplified because it’s directed at elementary school students).
Around this time, billions of people all around the world celebrate the new year, based on the cycles of the moon, which is called the lunar calendar. One of the earliest lunar calendars was invented by the Chinese around 4,000 years ago and is still one of the most widely used lunar calendars. Because the Chinese lunar calendar is the most famous, many people call this occasion the “Chinese New Year.” But we prefer to call it Lunar New Year because it’s more inclusive.
Each Lunar New Year is symbolized by one of 12 different animals and the traditional legend is that the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius called a meeting of all animals and 12 eventually showed up and he gave them each a year on the Lunar calendar. On Monday, we’ll celebrate the Year of Ox — anyone born starting Monday until the next Lunar New Year will be born into the Year of the Ox, along with anyone who turns 12, 24, 36, 48, etc.
Along with the Chinese, many other nationality and ethnic groups celebrate Lunar New Year. Because my family came from Viet Nam, our version of Lunar New Year is called Tet. Like many Lunar New Year celebrations, Tet is one of the biggest and most important holidays in Vietnamese culture, almost like New Year’s Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas all rolled into one.
Here in the U.S., you have probably seen Chinese or Lunar New Year celebrations that involve parades and Lion dances. But in more traditional terms, Tet also symbolizes “rebirth” and “renewal.” This means that whatever happened to you personally, to your family, or to your country in the past year, the New Year is your chance to start all over again to have a happy and prosperous new year.
In preparation for Tet, many families clean and even paint their home in anticipation of spring, they settle old debts and disputes, buy new clothes, and pledge to behave nicely and work hard in the new year.
This Lunar New Year occurs around the same time as another very important event that’s taking place a little later today in our nation’s capital, Washington DC — Barack Obama’s inauguration — when he officially becomes our next President.
It’s a very exciting and emotional time for many Americans. One of the reasons why it’s so exciting for many Americans is that, in many ways, Obama’s inauguration also symbolizes the rebirth of our country. In terms of his policies, he has said that he plans to do many things differently from what our last President has done, and this was one of the main reasons why so many people voted for him.
But more generally, he represents rebirth in many other ways. For example, as you probably already know, he is the first African American President of the United States. This is a very big deal — this country unfortunately has not treated African Americans and other people of color very well throughout its history. In many ways, African Americans and other people of color are still treated badly and still face many kinds of prejudice and discrimination in American society.
This kind of change was also symbolized by the person whose birthday we celebrated yesterday as a national holiday — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Especially as Barack Obama becomes our nation’s first African American President, it’s important to remember the life and words of Dr. King, especially when he talks about change and rebirth. Here are some excerpts from Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech that talks about change:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. . . . I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. . . . With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, and to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
Dr. King’s word have inspired many Americans, such as Barack Obama, to do what they can to change America for the better and in the process, to help people start anew toward a better life for themselves, their families and loved ones, and our entire world.
It’s with this in mind that we celebrate these three wonderful and important events taking place all at the same time — Dr. King’s birthday, Barack Obama’s inauguration, and Tet, the Lunar New Year celebration of rebirth and renewal.