Mayor's Arts Awards: Tet in Seattle

Cinco de Mayo. Bastille Day. St. Patrick's Day. Tet? One Seattle organization is paving the way for America to assimilate the Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration into its canon of ethnic holidays.

"In a way Tet is like Christmas, a time when people take the whole week off to get together with family to catch up," says Khanh Vu, director of Tet in Seattle. "It’s a very special day."

Christmas plus New Year's? What's not to love? Maybe that's what the Seattle Arts Commission was asking themselves when they nominated Tet in Seattle for a Mayor's Arts Award, which Mayor Mike McGinn bestowed upon the 15-year-old nonprofit this year.

"I think the message the mayor had was in order to build a bigger and better community, everyone has to contribute," Vu says. "In the Vietnamese community, we try to integrate into the fabric of America. Tet festival is a way to showcase our multicultural background and as well as promote the message of learning, being together in harmony, and embracing diversity."

This past January, Vu says, Tet in Seattle drew 15,000 visitors from all over the Puget Sound region to Seattle Center to sample Vietnamese culture through music, food, dance, and celebration. The event is free, paid for by public grants and private donations.

"This is our 16th year and we've grown to the point where a lot of people outside the Vietnamese community know about us," Vu says. Still, the heart of Tet in Seattle is the roughly 39,000 first-, second- and third-generation Vietnamese who comprise one of the Puget Sound's fastest-growing ethnic populations.

"A lot of Vietnamese businesses support us because they feel good about a chance to get together," Vu says. "So many people are involved in their work nowadays that they don’t often have that chance, so it's great to have the community united in one place."

Tet in Seattle's employs 40 year-round, all-volunteer staff, all as well as 80 or so extra volunteers during the Tet event. Most are high school and college age, Vu says, seeking social and management skills through volunteering that they can't get in school. Along with the Tet holiday festival, Tet in Seattle programs five other major events throughout the year, including ones oriented around SeaFair, an American Cancer Society Benefit, and a Christmas holiday food drive.

"We're just a small ethnic community group—not exactly mainstream—so we're pretty honored and proud to receive an award," says Vu, who also works full time as an engineering manager for Intel.

"It’s a full time job multiplied by two," he says. "It's stressful, but I feel blessed in terms of having the American dream—an education, a good paying job, a house. To volunteer for the community is a chance to give back to America for giving me the opportunity to be successful."