Tampa Bay area Vietnamese welcome Year of the Tiger

Sydney, 6, gets a pep talk from mom Linda Nguyen of Tampa before the kids’ costume contest Saturday at the Coliseum in St. Petersburg.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Sydney, 6, gets a pep talk from mom Linda Nguyen of Tampa before the kids’ costume contest Saturday at the Coliseum in St. Petersburg.

When Tom Nguyen, 48, arrived in the United States 15 years ago, he had freedom and not much else. He washed dishes and learned English. He worked his way through college.

Now he's an electrical engineer — albeit, for the last six months, an unemployed one.

The United States has been good to him. But like thousands of other Vietnamese in the Tampa Bay area, he doesn't want to forget the land he reluctantly left.

So on Saturday, there he was at the Coliseum in St. Petersburg, celebrating a New Year festival with 1,000 other immigrants and first-generation Vietnamese-Americans.

"I can see my friends," said Nguyen. "I can remember the culture."

The Tampa Bay area is home to an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Vietnamese, and greater St. Petersburg is home to the highest concentration in Florida. They straddle two worlds.

At the festival, they blasted traditional music. They scarfed down sticky rice. And when young men wearing dragon costumes finished shimmying on stage, giddy kids chased them and stuffed dollar bills into the dragons' mouths (for good luck).

A new year without a dragon dance is "like a doughnut without coffee," joked Dungtien Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese American Mutual Association of Tampa Bay and a financial planner in Tampa.

But the melting pot was simmering, too.

A boy with a Mohawk. Another with a Confederate flag shirt. Dancers doing a cha-cha.

When members of the Vietnamese Marine Corps marched through the auditorium, they carried the flag of the former South Vietnam and the American flag. Everyone stood for the loudest version of the Star-Spangled Banner this side of Raymond James Stadium.

Tu Nguyen, 36, said he left Vietnam in 1992 because the communist government discriminated against people who supported the Americans — or whose families did — before Saigon fell in 1975.

"Who wants to leave the motherland? Nobody," said Tu Nguyen. "But we had to for a better life."

He found it. He's a software engineer in Tampa. His wife is a pharmacist.

When he went back to Vietnam for a visit in 2006, he found people working for a dollar a day.

"We felt bad," he said.

Tom Nguyen said he didn't have any choice, either. He couldn't find work in Vietnam. And the government kept such close tabs on him, he said, that he had to get permission from the police to visit his grandmother.

In the United States, he said, "I can do anything I want."

But there's a tradeoff.

His kids, 12 and 3, don't speak much Vietnamese. And their uncle, still in Vietnam, doesn't speak English. Tom Nguyen said he's making them take lessons so they don't lose touch.

"I want them to talk to him," he said. "In their blood, in their roots, they're still Vietnamese."

. Fast facts

Lunar calendar

The Vietnamese New Year is tied to the lunar calendar and usually falls in late January or early February. The Year of the Tiger starts Feb. 14, but the Vietnamese American Mutual Association of Tampa Bay held its festival Saturday.

Tampa Bay area Vietnamese welcome Year of the Tiger 02/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 6, 2010 11:05pm]

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