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Honoring the past: Spokane’s Vietnamese population celebrates Heritage Day on Sunday

UPDATED: Sun., April 10, 2022

Spokane Valley resident Tan Do salutes during the paying of the Vietnamse national anthem during Vietnamese Heritage Day at Shadle Park Library on Sunday  (kathy plonka)
Spokane Valley resident Tan Do salutes during the paying of the Vietnamse national anthem during Vietnamese Heritage Day at Shadle Park Library on Sunday (kathy plonka)

Spokane’s Vietnamese American Senior Association celebrated their 6th annual Vietnamese Heritage Day on Sunday, honoring those who settled in the country while escaping China’s Han dynasty .

According to Ngoc Chau, the treasurer of the Vietnamese American Senior Association, April 10 is the day that the Vietnamese honor Founding Father’s Day.

Mary Nguyen was one of the main organizers of the event in Spokane held at the Shadle Park Library with more than 100 people in attendance.

“Without our seniors, I could not make this event,” Nguyen said. “They helped us with the food, the preparation and were just really energetic. They came and helped with as many things as they could.”

Whether it be perfecting sticky rice dumplings from muscle memory or speaking both English and Vietnamese fluently, elders are the backbone of both the Vietnamese society and a bridge back to the homeland.

They carry and cherish memories of what Vietnam was before the Communist regime took over in the 1960s and ’70s and upended lives during the Vietnam War. Veterans were honored with yellow tulips , the color associated with royalty in Vietnam.

Among those honored was Tan Do, a Green Beret in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Do participated in community work under his two-star general, Pham Van Phu, who died by suicide during the fall of Saigon with four other generals to avoid being captured.

After Saigon fell, Do was captured and served an eight-year prison sentence for his service in the Vietnam War. He was released in 1991 and came to America as a refugee. Do called the relationship between Vietnamese and American war veterans “a close bond.”

“Once the American people came over to help out our country to fight the Communists, we were working very closely,” Do said. “We were not very happy when the Americans withdraw out of our country. We had a lot of suffering at the time after the Americans left our country.”

Do recognized the moment as a way give thanks to everyone who was part of the war, including the citizens who stood for their country’s freedom. Both the Vietnamese and American national anthems were played.

“This serves to remind everybody, not just the Vietnamese Army, but all Vietnamese people because we have to remember all the ancestors and the entities they built to make Vietnam,” he said. “We have to respect everybody equally and how they gave to their country.”

While the event included oral histories and cultural displays from elders, younger Vietnamese patrons attended the event as well. Vina Cathcart, a first-generation Vietnamese-American in her late 20s, attended the event in a turquoise ‘ao dai,’ a traditional, layered Vietnamese gown with pants underneath.

Cathcart is now focused on building “intergenerational heritage,” a particular, hybrid space where both her American and Vietnamese cultures are acknowledged, respected and coexist. She described the first-generation experience as an “internal tug of war.”

With American culture relying on free thinking and individualism, Cathcart feels tension between her American identity and her traditional roles of being a Vietnamese mother, wife and daughter. As a member of Spokane United We Stand, Cathcart finds other first-generation people of color struggling in this space.

“You have your cultural, heritage side, where your parents are immigrants … but they still have their traditional roots. Then you’re raised in a Western world, so how do you rectify that?” Cathcart said. “How do you balance the cultural heritage with traditional values in a Western world where often times it might butt heads?”

Along with the intergenerational heritage, Cathcart hopes her 10-month-old son, Atlas, who is half-white and half-Vietnamese, will understand his biracial identity and cultures. In addition to teaching him both Vietnamese and English , events like the Vietnamese Heritage Day make Cathcart’s goal of Atlas experiencing nuanced cultural events easier.

“We want to raise him to not be ashamed of who he is,” Cathcart, who married her white partner, Michael, two years ago, said. “We’re raising him to be tolerant of other races by taking him to events like these but also attending Black History Month and Black business expos. We’re just raising him to be aware of the surrounding cultures.”

Dancing, drumming and singing performances to honor Vietnam were streamed throughout the event, along with explanatory slideshows to help understand Vietnam’s ancient history. Commemorative performances such as a prerecorded drum dance from the Coeur D’Alene Tribe and the Filipino Bamboo dance were also presented during the ceremony. VASA also streamed patriotic Vietnamese songs, including a live performance of Tam Doan & Huong Thuy’s ”Afternoon Up in Thuong Village.”

Keynote speakers included Bac Si Mat Xanh, a Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War, and Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, who presented the city of Spokane’s Proclamation of Vietnamese Heritage Day, which was made official on April 2, 2020.

Sunday’s celebration was the first in-person ceremony since 2019. Serving as a teacher and principal in Vietnam, Chau also gave a speech about the country’s history.

“The Vietnamese ancestors came from 100 Indigenous non-Chinese tribes, called the Bach Viet or Bai Yue, who lived in the south of Yangtze River, in what is central China now,” Chau said. “Being chased by the Han Chinese, our ancestors ran south toward the Pacific Ocean, to establish Vietnam, a combination of two words, ‘viet’ meaning pass over or crossing, and ‘nam’ meaning ‘south.’ ”

Nguyen hopes Vietnamese Heritage Day is an inspires younger generations to celebrate their culture.

“We would like to be more diverse with the older and younger people, maybe a Vietnamese business association to help the community, but we do not have the structures like the Hmong, the Chinese and the Filipino associations,” she said. “We are trying to transform the VASA to be a little more dynamic for the younger people.”

Amber D. Dodd's work as the Carl Maxey Racial and Social Inequity reporter for Eastern Washington and North Idaho primarily appears in both The Spokesman-Review and The Black Lens newspapers, and is funded in part by the Michael Conley Charitable Fund, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, the Innovia Foundation and other local donors from across our community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.

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