Sunday, February 5, 2012

chúc mừng năm mới!

I realize that I am 36 days past the appropriate date to declare my new year's resolutions and that by this time, my resolutions would almost certainly be out the window. Fortunately, I bought myself some extra time considering the fact that the new year in Vietnam has just begun. Today is the last official day of the Vietnamese holiday celebrating their new year, and tomorrow is when people return to work/new school semesters start, etc.  The new year celebration in Vietnam, known as Tet, is by far the biggest (and maybe only) holiday in Vietnam that lasts about two weeks and is fairly similar to Christmas in America. For a while, I was arguing that Christmas was a bigger deal in America than Tet was in Vietnam, but now I am reconsidering. Virtually the whole country shuts down, everybody retreats to their respective hometowns, and people literally veg out and do nothing but eat and sleep for two weeks.

Where was I amongst all this excitement? Well, I knew better than to stay in HCMC because it literally turns into a ghost town. All that traffic everyone complains about? You wouldn't believe it existed if you visited during Tet. It is bizarre. So I headed off on a two-week adventure to spend the holiday with two VERY different Vietnamese families in two VERY different locations (and also went to Hanoi to look at more bird collections). My experiences in the three aforementioned places will be posted within the next few days. I wanted to reserve  this post for New Year's related material.

There are SO many little traditions embedded within this holiday and everything is really dependent on where you are. The actual celebration is of the end of the lunar new year--we are now entering the year of the dragon (which is apparently very lucky and that why there are so many pregnant women right now--so they can bear their child in the year of the dragon). However, the take-home-message symbol you need to know about is the yellow-flower tree. Not EXACTLY sure what the symbolism is but it has something to do with luck and prosperity. People treat the tree the way we treat Christmas trees. They buy the tree a week or so before Tet day (it looks like a dead tree at the time) and then it will hopefully bloom these gorgeous yellow flowers by the time the New Year arrives. It is absolutely gorgeous. After the holiday they dispose of the trees and will buy a new one next year. 

Other mini-traditions worth noting: In addition to the trees, lights and decorations are everywhere around the city. On the actual Tet evening, people usually watch fireworks (I did on the beach in Nha Trang) and then exchange what is known as "ly si" (lucky money) in which they put money in an envelope and exchange it. The older people are supposed to give it to the younger people and I never did quite understand who I was supposed to exchange with because every time someone gave something to me, I wasn't supposed to give it to them. Confusing but entertaining. THEN, immediately after the fireworks everyone goes to buy a giant piece of sugar cane, which is supposed to be another form of a lucky tree or something, and then some hang these lanterns symbolizing, you guessed it, LUCK :)

saigon streets with tet lights :)
tet fireworks on nha trang beach
lucky lantern on a lucky tree

 After being immersed deep within the culture these past two weeks, I feel a bit more recharged and ready
to go in regards to my project and experience here. As usual, nothing ever goes as planned and my exact outline for my project is basically nonexistent. There needs to be a lot of rethinking and redesigning, but I still yearn to have the same lasting impression here. Therefore, I feel it is an appropriate time to list a few resolutions for myself and my project:

  1. Blog at least once a week. I think blogging is an important aspect to my experience here because it is not only a way for me to log my adventures and progress, but also a way for me to relay information back home about Vietnam and help reshape people's image of this place. In a sense, I think that is actually the real underlying goal of the Fulbright project (my opinion). 
  2. Be committed to learning the language. I live in Vietnam. I am friends with Vietnamese people. I have been so incredibly and deeply immersed in the culture that I find it virtually inexcusable for me to not be conversational in this language. I will start classes again later this month. 
  3. Do something meaningful here. I have been here for about 5 months already and as shocking as that sounds, I am morbidly depressed that my grant is halfway over. I am only just beginning to uncover this ridiculously complex country and I have so many ideas in my head about things that I want to do. Only five more months of being able to work here makes me sad. Therefore, I need to lay out exactly what I want to do with the data that I have. I have already stated that I wanted to design a database for the birds of Vietnam and I am planning on putting together a publication regarding the museums of Vietnam. I still feel as if I have so much more to offer here. I hope I can remain motivated and keep my priorities in line to be able to do everything I want to do.
There is more on my mind, but I think that is a good starting point. Happy new years, everybody. The year of the dragon is going to be a good one. I can feel it.

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