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With nod to ancestors, families herald Tet

Published January 22, 2004

[Times photos: Toni L. Sandys]
Wearing mourning bands, Trinh Le, 31, and her niece Tina Nguyen, 2 1/2, go into the temple in Town 'N Country.
Hue Le, 40, and her mother, Ut Nguyen, 64, pray for Le's father and Nguyen's husband, Tri Van Le, who died last month, during a ceremony Wednesday at Minh Dang Quang Temple in Town 'N Country.

Hue Le smiled through tears Wednesday as she prepared to celebrate the biggest holiday of the year for many of the Tampa Bay area's Asian-Americans.

Today is the Lunar New Year, and for Vietnamese, Chinese and Koreans here and overseas, it is a time to begin anew and to carry out centuries-old customs in a changing world.

For Le, it meant participating in the "calling of the ancestors" ceremony at the Minh Dang Quang Temple in Town 'N Country, where she asked her dead relatives to bless her family for a prosperous new year.

The tears were for her father, Tri Van Le, who died last month.

"I miss him," Le said, tears spilling down her face.

Le, her mother, sister and niece, all of Pinellas Park, wore mourning bands around their heads to signify that a relative recently died.

They sat before a giant golden Buddhist statue and touched their foreheads to the floor as incense burned amid offerings of handpicked fruit.

Called Gia Tien, it is customary for Vietnamese families to pray to their ancestors on the day before the New Year.

It is just one of many rituals followed by Tet celebrants. At midnight Wednesday, the temple was to welcome the new year by ringing bells and beating drums.

This is the Year of the Monkey, which means risk-takers beware, said Hazel Mah, owner of Profusion restaurant in Tampa.

"It's a very clever sign," Mah said. "Even if you are clever, you will not be able to outsmart others. Other people will outsmart you."

The Chinese and Vietnamese zodiacs are based on 12 signs - all animals - that provide a cyclical way to recall years. Typically, people will ask what animal you are, and deduce your age range by the 12-year cycles.

While the animals each have their own characteristic - the monkey is considered very intelligent and diplomatic, craves attention and will do anything to get it - it's really what's written in the stars that determines a person's life path, said Uyen Le, whose mother was a professor of Vietnamese literature at the famous Trung Vuong school in Vietnam.

"It is believed that every person's fate and life is governed in broad guidelines by his or her personal stars," Uyen Le said. "Thus, it is customary for Asians to have a personal astrology chart drawn up that addresses such areas as his or her love life, marriage, children, parents, professional career and character."

Mah, who is a lamb, said it's supposed to be a better year for her, but she won't be playing the stock market as long as the monkey is around.

"Money comes, money goes," she said. "Just stay put."

Mah, who was born in China, was preparing her own feast Wednesday and continuing what her mother taught her - with a few exceptions.

She welcomed relatives from as far away as Toronto last night.

"If you get together, it means you will be getting together many more years to come," said Mah, 60. "For the new generation, they don't believe this, but we do."

One of Mah's sons won't be able to join his family until tonight because of work obligations.

For the next two weeks, there are traditions to keep up, such as lighting lanterns to welcome new additions to the family, maintaining a vegetarian diet for three days and worshiping Buddha.

On the sixth day, a mother-in-law such as Mah is supposed to provide her daughter-in-law with food and flowers to take home to her parents in gratitude for giving their child as her daughter.

"But she's not Chinese, so she doesn't have to do that," Mah said, chuckling.

She said adhering to traditions can be hard, but she does the best she can. "People perceive this as not necessary or superstitious," Mah said. "But this is a part of our heritage. If we don't follow it, it will be lost."

[Last modified January 22, 2004, 01:46:01]

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