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Discover why nation's new year fest, Tet, is most popular holiday at the Portland Children's Museum exhibit

COURTESY: PORTLAND CHILDREN'S MUSEUM - 'Voyage to Vietnam: Celebrating the Tet Festival' opens at the Portland Children's Museum Feb. 9 and runs through May 6, featuring local Vietnamese artists, activities and events. 
Can you name a Vietnamese artist, author or musician?

Chances are, you can't — but that doesn't mean you won't find plenty of inspiration and universal cause for celebration at a unique exhibit opening this month at the Portland Children's Museum.

"Voyage to Vietnam: Celebrating the Tet Festival" opens Feb. 9 and runs through May 6. It's timed for Vietnam's biggest cultural celbration, the new year, which is Feb. 16 on the 2018 lunar calendar.

Portland is home to more than 12,000 Vietnamese residents, which is just over 2 percent of the population and growing.

As far as the arts community goes, it's "small but vital," says Dao Strom, a Vietnam-born artist, author and musician who came to the United States at age 2 and has lived in Portland for the past seven years.

Strom is one of the artists who'll be collaborating on an an interactive exhibit — in her case, it's a pop-up library of books by artists and writers of color, everything from graphic novels to short story collections.

"Vietnamese culture in particular is an example of an American culture," Strom says. "An American story of immigrants and refugee groups that came over from a situation like war and displacement in other countries. There's that universal story. We're all from somewhere else, essentially."

Much of the art will similarly reflect on these themes — of war, attachment to land, family, and the environment.

COURTESY: PORTLAND CHILDREN'S MUSEUM - Developed by the Children's Discovery Museum of San Diego, 'Voyage to Vietnam' is traveling to nine children's museums across the nation. Children and adults can explore Vietnam's rich arts and traditions, not often celebrated in mainstream American culture. While serious sounding, the exhibit overall will be geared toward children, where kids can select faux flowers and food items for celebration, try on a giant lion dance mask and join a parade, pose for photos, enjoy traditional music and games, and watch a virtual fireworks display burst into the night sky.

"This exhibit advances our museum's commitment to inclusion and global understanding. We learn about the similarities and differences of family celebrations," says museum Executive Director Ruth Shelly.

"My hope is that seeing Vietnam through the eyes of children will makes us all more empathetic and appreciative of the rich cultural diversity within our own community."

Strom is just one of several artists who'll be involved; each has a deeply personal story that will draw in visitors of all ages.

In a piece with Legos and rubber bands called "What We Leave Behind," Portland artist Anna Vo explores her childhood.

"I did not question the proliferation of rubber bands when I was a child in Vietnam," she says. "I enjoyed learning to make several useful objects out of them, but only later wondered how a house without running water, a shower, toilet or paved roads had the means to access rubber products."

Vo explains that she recently learned that the Michelin Rubber Plantation started in 1925 after French colonization of Vietnam. And she recalls how French influence shows up in other ways, too, in the language, food and clothing.

The presence of the U.S. military in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War left cultural artifacts like rock 'n' roll, folk music and certain TV shows.

"I would like to ask readers to think about how means of production, history and imperialism has impacted their history or environments," Vo says of her work.

Also in the exhibit lineup: The White Lotus Dragon and Lion Dance team and performance group, and Tieng Hoai Huong musical ensemble and performance group, and Portland State University's International Cultural Service Program.

The exhibit was funded through a competitive national initiative by the Freeman Foundation Asian Culture Exhibit Series, and developed by Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose. The Portland Children's Museum is one of nine museums that received the grant.

Check it out: "Voyage to Vietnam: Celebrating the Tet Festival," Portland Children's Museum, Feb. 9-May 6, www.portlandchildrensmuseum.org

@jenmomanderson

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