By Sharon Simonson
EAST SAN JOSE — Quyen Mai admits the insanity of trying to create and organize a two-day Tet Festival for more than 12,000 people, starting from nothing only four months before the event date.
When he agreed to lead the effort for the most important Vietnamese celebration of the year, the 31-year-old immigrant and self-proclaimed community-builder was not thinking about practicality: “People know the Vietnamese culture because of pho noodles,” he says. “We have a lot more than that.”
The Viet Nam Project
Forty years after the fall of South Vietnam to the North Vietnamese communists and the arrival of the first refugees to American shores, San Jose’s Vietnamese-American population owes itself — and the community at large — a Tet Festival worthy of its achievements, Mai believes.
This weekend, he hopes to draw to East San Jose’s History Park at least 10 percent of the county’s 125,000 Vietnamese residents and as many non-Vietnamese people as possible. Over 48 hours, Mai wants to build a virtual “passport to Vietnam” using traditional food, dress, language and dance. “I want people to feel when they go, ‘This is Vietnamese culture,’” he says.
Sitting in an East San Jose Vietnamese coffee shop after 7 p.m. two Wednesdays before the event, Mai gulps an avocado, ice and condensed-milk shake and beef with vegetables and noodles. He acknowledges the trauma of his refugee population and the difficulty of rising above subsistence living and thinking. “The community has taken a lot,” he says. “In Vietnam they suffer too much, and when they come here, they suffer again.”
But he rejects the each-man-for-himself behavior that such conditions can and have inspired. He says the community is ready for more and must demand more of itself.
Already, some of his Vietnamese peers and younger people don’t understand fully why and how their families came to the United States. Many no longer speak Vietnamese fluently, and their parents and grandparents do not speak English. The Tet Festival is an attempt to increase the community’s self-awareness and pride and to offer its best to San Jose at large.
“Even though it is still an immigrant and a refugee community, there is nothing wrong with that,” Mai says. “As a matter of fact, we should be proud.”
As a true millennial, to pull off the festival, Mai has gathered round himself a cohort of like-minded peers and friends. They have harnessed the tools of the Internet, mostly Facebook and Twitter, for promotion. “The Tet Festival is one of the biggest events for the Vietnamese people, a big thing for our history and our parents,” says Jason Nguyen, a professional photographer and Mai peer who is also from San Jose. Nguyen is managing a photography competition for the event.
The millennial generation is the most ethnically and racially diverse in our national history and is the largest since the baby boomers. Its size — 73 million compared to the boomers’ roughly 80 million — has been inflated not by the high birth rates that followed World War II, but by immigration: 11.2 million millennials, 15 percent, are foreign-born.
Silicon Valley and the Bay Area epitomize the change. Not quite 40 percent of Santa Clara County’s millennial generation is foreign-born — 172,000 people in all. Thirty-six percent of San Mateo County millennials are foreign-born; 32 percent are in Alameda County; 27 percent are in San Francisco.
Since 2008, Mai has hosted “EM Radio,” an hour-long program starting at 11 p.m. each weeknight on KVVN AM 1430 in San Jose, “the voice of the Vietnamese.” “Em,” he says, is the word for a younger brother or sister and signifies the show’s focus on Vietnamese youth.
Disgusted by what he believed were dishonest businesspeople preying on the Vietnamese community, Mai approached the station with the idea of having a show to inform listeners to foil such practices. The result has been a breadth of programming in Vietnamese and English from local government to the legal system to not-for-profit organizations.
“His show is really good,” said Trinh Pham, who has followed Mai’s radio career since his first days on the air, tuning in nightly with her husband “like an old couple,” she says. Like Mai, Trinh is 31-years-old and came to the United States from Vietnam at age 7. “[Mai] helps people find jobs and housing. He always is trying to help Vietnamese people in need,” she says.
When Pham and her husband, John Nguyen, started their business, My Viet Cargo, four years ago, they advertised on Mai’s show. The friendship flourished. Then late last year, Pham and Nguyen decided to sponsor a 2015 Vietnamese Tet Festival, an idea they had nourished for the previous five years, anticipating the four-decade anniversary of the loss of their former country. Others wanted to partner with them, Pham said, but they joined with Mai. It is a not-for-profit endeavor.
Mai’s radio show has spawned other friendships and ventures too, becoming a centerpiece of a growing network of related service organizations. On Valentine’s Day 2011 he and two friends co-founded the CayDa Foundation. “Cay da” is banyan tree in Vietnamese. The tree signifies immortality and is said to have life-resuscitating powers. Such trees are also traditional South Asian sites for community meetings. The Vietnamese Dream, Cay Da’s website says, is “a sustainable global Vietnamese community that participates in the prosperity of the world.”
In July 2012, Mai founded the Vietnamese American Roundtable “to connect organizations and professional individuals to share resources, networking and collaborative opportunities.” The mission is to improve the quality of life for the Vietnamese American community in Santa Clara County.
In the coffee shop, Mai laments his personal poverty (good-naturedly) despite all of his work and expresses anxiety about the success of the upcoming festival. His face is paler, the shadows beneath his eyes darker, his demeanor older since his Facebook photo taken some time before. But his eyes are clear and sharp. “I love challenges—feeling, ‘Oh my goodness, what am I getting myself into?’” he says with a smile and a giggle. “I love that feeling,” he repeats. “If it’s not tough, I don’t think I like it.”
(Group photo of San Jose Vietnamese Tet Festival 2015 workers and event posters courtesy of Mai)