By Steven L. Shepard, Presidio of Monterey Public AffairsFebruary 28, 2013
PRESIDIO OF MONTEREY, Calif. -- Underneath the red paper lanterns, the "pop, pop" of firecrackers and amongst dense crowds on San Francisco's Chinatown streets, a group of about 20 students from the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center and Monterey Institute of International Studies arrived to witness the largest Chinese New Year celebration and parade in the world outside of Asia.
The trip was organized by staff of the Presidio of Monterey Outdoor Recreation program, which is part of the Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Directorate; Outdoor Rec is located near the Sloat Monument in building 228.
A tradition dating back to the 1860s, when large population of Chinese immigrants who came to California for work in the gold mines and railroads were looking for a way to share their culture, the modern San Francisco Chinese New Year's parade is watched by an estimated three million spectators, either live or by television, and has been listed as one of the world's top-ten parades.
For Marine Pvt. Giancarlo Duquette, who recently arrived in Monterey to attend DLIFLC, it was an excellent opportunity to get his first look at the "City by the Bay."
"I just really wanted to visit San Francisco, and I was not disappointed," said Duquette. "It was fun, it reminded me a lot of the Chinatown in New York, but I also saw some unique things. I don't know a lot about the Chinese culture so it was really interesting."
"It's nice to get off base," Duquette added. "I know that once my [language] classes start it will just be study, study, study -- so I'm trying to get in as much [sightseeing] as I can in the next three weeks. This was my first trip with the [Presidio of Monterey's Outdoor Recreation program] and I'm impressed. I'll be coming back to see what else they have to offer."
Another first-time visitor to San Francisco on the trip was DLIFLC assistant professor Yang Li, who works in the Chinese Language Department.
"I grew up in China but I wanted to learn about the Chinese culture here in San Francisco," said Li.
She noticed that some elements of the celebration were different, like the inclusion of famous and prominent people in the parade, but she said that she felt the celebration was similar to those seen in China. She cited the example of the lion and dragon dances, explaining that the Chinese people view the dragon as their ancestor and themselves as its direct descendants.
"It's good that they are keeping these traditions here in San Francisco, it's a good opportunity for our students to learn about Chinese culture," said Li. "Learning a language is not just about the language, you have to know about the culture to really comprehend it. If you want to learn the Chinese language really well, you have to explore the culture and take advantage of when these Chinese cultural events take place."
Li finished by teaching the phrase "Gong Xi Fa Cai," which roughly translates from Chinese (Mandarin) as "wishing you more wealth in the New Year." So with this new year being the Year of the Snake, traditionally associated in Chinese culture with malevolence, cattiness and mystery, people should take all the well wishes they can get.