Many Americans think of Vietnam as a war.
The Children's Museum of Houston wants them to remember that it also happens to be as a country with a rich cultural history.
An ambitious and innovative exhibit opening at the museum this week mixes ancient Vietnamese folk tales with visions of modern Vietnamese daily life to give kids a hands-on introduction to the country and its traditions.
The exhibit, Dragons and Fairies, seeks to go beyond the tired cliche of the "war-torn country" and give a better understanding of the Vietnamese, according to Cheryl McCallum, the museum's director of education.
"The Vietnamese are a remarkably resilient people," McCallum said during a recent preview tour of the exhibit still in construction. "We want kids to see that and appreciate it."
Local Vietnamese who helped organize the exhibit predict it will draw Southeast Asian families from throughout the state.
"This is the first time in Texas -- maybe even North America -- that we have had a program of this size and quality," said Dr. Y Hoang Do, a local physician.
The exhibit is timed to begin just after the Lunar New Year, the most important celebration among Vietnamese at home and in America. Even Vietnamese who have become fully acculturated Americans return to their traditions during the festival known as Tet, dressing their children in traditional clothing and teaching them about the ancient customs and foods.
The exhibit does much the same thing, allowing kids of all cultures to learn about the traditions. It also offers kids a chance to see what their counterparts in Vietnam go through every day.
There is a computer offering a look at the daily life of Vietnamese children, a school backpack filled with the sorts of things kids in Asia would take to class -- even a scooter kids can ride in front of a screen giving a simulated view of the motorbike-teeming streets of Hanoi.
Organizers were careful to avoid politics, so as not to upset the sensibilities of Vietnamese exiles who oppose the current communist government. Do predicts that the focus on ancient traditions will get a favorable reception from most local Vietnamese.
After leaving Houston, the exhibit will continue on to 10 other cities. It was sponsored through the Freeman Foundation.
The museum has taken on similar subjects, though perhaps not on the same scale. A previous exhibit showed life in a Taiwanese village, and a permanent display offers a glimpse into the world of children in a pueblo in Oaxaca, Mexico.
One might assume that it would be particularly difficult to introduce insulated American kids to a foreign culture, but McCallum makes it sounds easy.
"Kids understand role play," she said, explaining that having the children participate in a different culture can help them understand it.
In this age of economic and cultural globalization, the museum considers introducing children to the world as part of its mission.
"If they're insulated and not given the opportunity to see how other people live, they're at a disadvantage," McCallum said.
"Dragons and Fairies: Exploring Vietnam Through Folktales," opens Saturday and runs through April 18 at the Children's Museum, 1500 Binz. More information: 713-522-1138.
Reprinted from Houston Chronicle