Monday, January 30, 2012

Some last thoughts about Tet

     My favorite place to walk and exercise is in the nearby city park at 5AM.  The park has a lake with a road that encircles it which is about a mile around.  The road is dimly lit with well spaced lights.   I had become accustomed to the park lights and my fellow walkers and runners.  Then Tet arrived at the park.  The week before Tet the food venders, craft sellers, and carnival game stalls began to set up.  All of this was accompanied by bright lights and loud music.  Thankfully the loud music was reserved for daytime and evening visitors.  The bright lights however are kept on night and day including the early morning hours.  I am grateful that all of this is contained in the area of the park near the main entrances.  This is also where the park amusement rides are kept.  All of this is perfect for the young people enjoying Tet or families on a Tet outing with their children.  It reminds me of fireman’s carnivals and village festivals at home, such as the Hilton Apple Fest in Hilton NY.  While the lights, noise, and festive nature of the park is wonderful for the celebration of Tet, a grumpy old man like me will welcome the return of peace, tranquility, and dim lighting to the Da Nang city park.  
     As the Tet food venders pack up and leave the park I am reminded of two things.  First my favorite Tet food is the pickled vegetables known as dua chua.  The second thing I am reminded of is the story of the sticky rice cake known as Banh Chung.  The story as I know it is about an ancient king who had defeated the Chinese and was ready to transfer the throne to one of his twenty-two sons.  He gathered the sons and told them each to prepare a dish.  The one that prepared the dish that was pleasing to the palate of the king would ascend the throne.  Twenty-one of the sons traveled far and wide to exotic places and gathered spices and materials each hoping to create the dish that would win the throne.  One son however did not leave the palace.  He sat by the gate and thought about what he might do.  One night he had a vision.  He was told that rice is the food of the people and was given instructions on how to make Banh Tet and Banh Chung.  After the others had made their presentations the king asked for this son’s recipe.  The prince unwrapped the leaves from the cake and used the bamboo tape it was tied with to cut it into pieces to serve the king.  The king was delighted with the plain and simple taste.  He declared the son who made the rice cake to be the next king.  So the next day the prince was crowned and since then Banh Chung has been made for Tet as a token of thanks to the earth.
     As all of the celebrations of Tet wind down and people return to work, I ask myself what is the essence of Tet?  What is under all of the festivities? My sense is that the family reunion and the honoring of the ancestors are the heart of the Tet celebration.  There are many traditions, customs, and parties around Tet but the reverence for the ancestors is in the blood of the people of Viet Nam.  Everything the people do could not happen if it were not for the ancestors.  The people may be Buddhist or Hindu or Catholic; they still hold the ancestors in a place of honor and reverence.  I hold the paradox of joy and sadness when I think of this.  The joy is for the honored place the ancestors sit in.  The sadness is that westerners have lost that ideology so long ago and that the young Vietnamese people want to emulate westerners.  It is my hope that this foundation of Tet remains strong among the people.
     Several entries have been from my culture paper which is now complete.  These are my thoughts and experiences for Tet, the Lunar New Year 2012.  All of the descriptions, pictures, and videos cannot capture  the aura of excitement that surrounds Tet it is an experience everyone would enjoy.
Sooooo next vacation visit beautiful Viet Nam!
Chuc Mung Nam Moi

Friendship Union

    After our politics class this morning there was a scheduled meeting with the Friendship Union staff.  The Friendship Union is SUNY's partner in Viet Nam.  They have provided direction on how the community service aspect of the Brockport program can best help the people.  Our meeting this morning was another aspect of the Tet celebration.  We came together and the director handed out Lucky Money and shots of scotch were poured for everyone.  The director made some comments about good things in the coming year and asked for our comments on how we enjoyed Tet.  My comment had to do with the ancestors.  What I have realized is the ancestors must be included and honored and thanked for without the ancestors the people would not be.  Everything that exists is because of the ancestors, the ones who came before.  I notice My Hoa's smile as she interprets those words.  Being an elder myself, my take on things is different than that of the traditional student.  Since I have that going for me I am using it carefully.
     After all of the speaking at the meeting the toasting began.  It was ten o'clock in the morning and we were making toasts with shots of scotch!  After three of those I was thankful I did not have to drive anywhere.  As quickly as the meeting began it was over and we were free for the rest of the day. 
    This picture shows that even in Viet Nam it is possible to find cheddar cheese, crackers, and a nice bottle of Shiraz.  Comfort food where ever you go.
Soooo next vacation visit beautiful Viet Nam.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The eating and drinking of Tet

     One of the traditions of Tet is visiting the homes of friends.  As students here we were invited to the homes of each of the program staff to share a Tet meal.  I wish I had some grasp of the Vietnamese language for this occasion, however as we say, “It is what it is.”  After our visit to pagoda Nga, Victor and I traveled to Xuan’s house for lunch.  It seems as though Xuan lives closer to Hoi An then to Da Nang.  Xuan served us the largest quantity of food I have seen since arriving in Viet Nam.  There was extended family and dogs and a holiday atmosphere that pervaded everything.  We ate until we were stuffed then dessert was served.  One tradition it seems is the ubiquitous watermelon seeds.  These were served at every home we visited.  I never knew that if watermelon seeds are dried there is a nutlike center resembling a sunflower seed.  The people open these with their front teeth and munch away.  Victor and I are not very skilled at this but I am getting better.
     Our next meal was dinner at My Hoa’s house which is within walking distance of the program house.  In contrast to the large quantity we had seen at lunch we were treated to an elegantly simple vegetarian meal.  Four days a month My Hoa eats vegetarian food and on the first day of Tet this was the case.  She made an exception for us and pulled out some delicious homemade jerked beef.  It was very good, and spicy.  Once again there were watermelon seeds and little candies for dessert.  On the second day of Tet we had lunch with Nga and dinner with Lieu.
     Just getting to lunch was a comedy of errors with taxi companies.  After about a 45 minute wait Nga and her brother arrived on motorbikes to take us to lunch. For us in the program there is a paradox around time.  It is very important to be on time for classes and program functions.  There is also Viet Nam time.  This is everything else, for example when friends say they will be by at noon and show up at one or two.  Except for program functions time is a mystery in Viet Nam.  At Nga’s house we had a very nice lunch and were entertained by her four year old son.  I found it funny how a mother’s scolding cuts through language barriers and yet the boy still found a way to ignore mom.  Some things are just universal.  Speaking of universal beer seems to be one of those things.  At each of our meals with program staff there was bia (beer).  Certainly during the Tet parties on Van Cao Street the bia was flowing liberally.  After lunch we were actually able to get a taxi back to the house for our afternoon nap.
     Dinner on the second day of Tet was at Lieu’s house.  We had a wonderful meal with Lieu and her daughter.  The food was good the bia was good and during dessert Lieu’s husband joined us.  He had apparently been celebrating Tet for quite a while before we arrived.  He was funny and taught Victor to say something like Viet Nam is beautiful and free because of Uncle Ho, in tieng Viet.  It was a very nice time with good food and good company.  On the third day of Tet lunch was at Dau’s house and dinner was at Hoang’s house.  
     We followed Dau to his house in a taxi and our friend Tre met us there.  It was a lively lunch with good food bia and conversation being interpreted back and forth.  Toward the end of lunch Victor was having stomach problems and had a rough time for a while.  Dau pulled out some kind of liquor that Tre and I enjoyed very much.  I have no idea what it was, but it was strong and had a very nice flavor.  Lucky for us it was served in a tiny glass.  When we returned to the house Victor was out of commission for the rest of the day.  He called Nga and she passed the word to Hoang.
     Since it was just me Hoang picked me up on his motorbike for a chilly windy ride out toward the beach to the north.  Hoang does not speak English and as I said I have no skill with tieng Viet.  I was concerned about how this evening would go.  This is Viet Nam and it is Tet so I decided to trust the gods and see what they had planned.  We arrived at the apartment building and went to their fifth floor apartment.  Hoang’s wife greeted me in English!  At least I would be able to communicate.  It was a wonderful meal with the best piece of fish I have tasted since arriving in Da Nang.  We were entertained sweetly by Hoang’s two cute young daughters.  The youngest wanted to sing a song for us and when we responded with applause there was more singing.  I asked the older girl who is twelve if she was studying English in school.  After some initial embarrassment she chose her words carefully.  ”Hello, how are you.” She said in fairly clear English.  After we exchanged greetings she sang “We wish you a Merry Christmas” a song they had been learning in English class.  I hope I do as well when we learn the song about Uncle Ho.
    Our language teacher invited us to dinner on the fourth day of Tet.  There were many in laws and relatives present and it was a lively evening filled with good food, good wine, and a bottle of 21 year old scotch.  I managed to screw-up the simple greeting of “Ban co khoe khong?”  Reaching for my notebook I managed to stammer “Toi Khoe cam on.  Con ban?”  All of that is tieng Viet for “How are you?”  “I am fine thanks.  And you?”  Maybe I need to write that 100 times so I will remember it.  Our teacher’s family is very friendly and everyone loves their little dog with the lucky money backpack, dessert camouflage pants and green hoodie.
     In Viet Nam the English word wine has a much broader meaning than it does in New York State.  In various homes of friends and our teacher when asked if we like wine we discovered it could mean actual red wine, rice liquor, or scotch whiskey.  It could also mean a wide variety of spirits in between all of those.  I have learned to expect just about anything when the word wine is mentioned.
     I am very happy to have come here and experienced Tet.  Tomorrow is Monday and it is back to class and our schedule of community service.  Having this break has been very relaxing and given me a chance to just hang out with a few people.  Everyone should have this experience.
Soooooo next vacation visit beautiful Viet Nam
Chuc Mung Nam Moi

Friday, January 27, 2012

More about Tet

     The weather for Tet is another sign of Luck.  It is my understanding that on the first day of Tet it is good luck to have a light misty spring rain.  I believe it is better known here as “Tet rain.”  During our time at pagoda the Tet rain arrived and it seemed to be in just the right quantity and just the right intensity.  Not too much not too little, just right.  After the Tet rain on the first day of Tet the weather stayed cool and cloudy with a little sun now and then.  It seems to have been absolutely perfect weather for visiting relatives, friends, and teachers.  The weather also has been perfect for the big party that takes place on Van Cao Street every night.  The restaurant owners have the tarps and awnings up for the celebrating crowd but the weather has cooperated so nicely that the coverings are only a contingency plan.  I believe one night there was some rain however, it did not seem to dampen the spirits of the people much although it may have dampened their pretty new clothes.
     Just like the new clothes on the American Easter holiday, Tet is about having a new outfit.  Many people at pagoda were dressed in their new suits and dresses.  And the fashion show does not stop there.  All over the city people are traveling around doing their family visits in their pretty new clothes.  It is very common to see women passengers riding side saddle with their high heels and a lovely new dress behind their partner who is wearing a suit and tie.  The fashion statement made during Tet in the cities of Viet Nam is definitely something to be experienced.
     Why all the fuss and new clothes?  Tet is the largest family reunion on the planet!  College students leave the cities and go home for Tet.  The banks are closed for a week while the bankers are with their families.  People travel to the ancestral village to honor the elders and the ancestors.  People fly from all over the world back home to Viet Nam for Tet.  Those who cannot afford to fly back, may make the effort to celebrate Tet within their communities.  My wife Bernie visited a celebration put on by the Rochester NY Vietnamese Community complete with the traditional Tet foods and party atmosphere.  My daughter Lori is a Physical Therapist Assistant in Quakertown PA.  She is treating a Vietnamese Nun.  This sweet woman brought my daughter Tet gifts and Lucky Money.  And so it is in this way that my time in Viet Nam has brought my wife, my daughter, and I together in the experience of Tet.
     Why is it so important for Vietnamese people to go back home?  As I mentioned earlier the Tet celebration is for the living and also for those who have passed into spirit.  The way I understand it the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest during Tet.  In my own spiritual practice of Wicca we believe that on Samhain Eve the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest.  The possibility of contact with family members who have passed on is the greatest on Samhain Eve.   So I understand why in the tradition of Tet everyone needs to be at the ancestral home for this family reunion.  I am told that in the villages each family has their own altar to honor the ancestors and there is also a communal family altar where ritual celebrations take place.
    This is the latest installment of my paper.  I am halfway done and I still have a lot of information to convey.  I hope you all enjoyed the singing birds as much as I do.  Victor said they do not bother him at all, he sleeps like a rock.  I was thinking of buying a bird for the program house.  I am not sure how that would go over.  I just enjoy their songs.  It is best to experience it in person  sooooooo next vacation visit beautiful Viet Nam!
Chuc Mung Nam Moi!

Angry Birds? Not these guys!

     The Birdman of Da Nang lives next door.  He has five or six birds and some mornings these feathered whistlers tell the whole world what a great day it is to be alive!  I love hearing their tunes and often whistle back and forth with them.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

More from my Culture Paper

     My experience of Tet Eve was a mixture of pain and excitement.  Victor, Dau and I walked to the river to see the Tet Eve fireworks.  Unfortunately I was not prepared for a four mile walk and the arthritis in my hip kept me in pain.  I took a taxi back to the house and watched the fireworks from the roof after taking ibuprofen for pain.  When Dau and Victor returned we toasted the new year and we all stayed up till about 2:30 AM.  The only thing I would do different is wear shoes and take my pain medicine before the walk.
     The first three days of the new year was an interesting mixture of visiting, eating, drinking, and napping and visiting, eating, drinking and napping and visiting, eating , drinking and napping.  Now that is a celebration!  We also went to pagoda on the first day of Tet. 
     Arriving at pagoda was a carnival atmosphere and a tangle of traffic I was very thankful to not have to be a driver in.  The ritual at pagoda began with incense and prayers.  My prayers were for the health and safety of all of us and that all the people around me have a happy Tet.  After our prayers we used the “shaky thing.”  The highly technical name for this divinatory tool was a great source of private amusement for me.  I am familiar with divinatory tools such as tarot cards, astrology, and numerology.  This was my first experience with the “shaky thing” whose name defines the operation.  The tool is a tube about eight inches long and three inches in diameter, open at one end.  Inside is a loose bundle of numbered sticks about ten inches long, ¾  of an inch wide and ¼ inch thick.  To use it, it is held at about a 45 degree angle and shaken (hence the name) until one of the sticks falls out.  The user remembers the number, passes the tool to the next user and looks up the number (mine was 3) in another location.  For me the reading indicated that it would be a good year for relationship.  Considering the last six months my wife, Bernie and I are ready for a good year.  The reading also said that I would have good health and that if there was sickness I would have a quick recovery.  Again this was very good news in light of the last six months.  There was something about if I choose to start a business I will have success.  All in all it was a very positive reading.  Next we picked a small envelope from a tree for a prize.  Mine was a laughing Buddha statue.  Each of these activities had a fee associated with it.  At first glance it seemed commercial to me until I was given to understand that this is how the people support the pagoda.
     I am writing this paper with two audiences.  My instructors and those of you reading this here.  You are getting the unpolished, unedited version.  The assignment is to record my experience and understanding so it seems perfect to be shared here.  Enjoy the read and vacation visit beautiful Viet Nam!!
Chuc Mung Nam Mou!!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

GoooooooD Morning Viet Naaaaaam!!

    During Tet the flag of The Socialist Republic of Viet Nam flew along every street in Da Nang just like this one right outside of the program house.  The Vietnamese people love their country.  They are not always happy with the government however they love their country fiercely.  Sound familiar?
    I am finding more and more similarities than differences between the PEOPLE of Viet Nam and the PEOPLE of America.  Then again I am looking for how we are alike.  Of course one big difference is that Americans quite rude.  Sorry y'all.  Try going to a foreign country for a while then coming home.  The culture shock of the US will make you want to go back to that other place.  It happened to me in 1975 when I came home from Japan.  I am guessing I will see it again in April.
    More about the people.  75% of the population of Viet Nam was born after Liberation Day April 30 1975.  (A national holiday in Viet Nam by the way).  Viet Nam is a country of young people who want a place in the modern world.  Of course the paradox is they are immersed in tradition and the ways of the ancestors.  Many young college age people see westerners as someone they want to make friends with and practice their tieng Ahn (English) skills with.  I have never been in a place where the people are as friendly as here in Viet Nam.  They have infinite patience with me while communicating with bits of English, Viet, and ASL.

     Above is a shot of the ferryboats that run back and forth across the river in Hoi An.  We were having a beer by the river and I was watching them load and unload these boats with bicycles, people and motorbikes using a six inch wide plank.  They could jam these boats full in about seven minutes.  The operators have it down to a smooth running ritual and nothing bothers them.  The people continuously amaze me.  I will most likely have more to say about that as my time here goes on.  The only way to really get it is to experience it.
Sooooooo next vacation visit beautiful Viet Nam!
Chuc Mung Nam Moi!!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Random Thoughts

     A bit more about the kitchen gods.  As I walk around the city of Da Nang and visit the houses of our staff for meals at Tet I have noticed a few things.  I have seen what appear to be altars with a small red light.  I have seen these in restaurants, cafes, and in the kitchens of our staff.  I asked My Hoa about the altar and she said, "kitchen gods."  Ah Ha!  Now that I know what those little altars are I am seeing them everywhere.  I feel incredibly blessed to be here immersed in this culture and learning every moment.  Sometimes I am out of my comfort zone and I know the place where learning takes place is outside of the comfort zone in a place I call the learning zone.  I have been spending a lot of time there.  As long as I do not get into the panic zone I will be okay.
    I have seen a dramatic increase in Victor's skill level with the language.  I am still stumbling around unable to remember words and phrases when I need them.  I have taken to carrying a small note pad with useful everyday phrases.  The people smile when I use the "wait a second" gesture, look up what I want to say and make the effort to use their language.  I am honored to be such a great source of amusement.  Oddly enough I also find myself signing in ASL as I try to speak tieng Viet.  I am not use to having three languages rattling around in my head at the same time.  Hope I don't blow a head gasket!  It is all more time in the learning zone.
     The reading that I did before coming here is paying off very nicely.  Little things such as, it is considered very rude to point at another person.  We were out for ca phe (coffee) and one of Victor's friends pointed at him.  The two girls seated next to him freaked out and pushed his hands down.  When I explained it to Victor later he indicated that although he has the language skill I have brought some knowing of the culture.  I think we make I good team.  That will be very useful in the coming weeks as we start teaching English at Da Nang University's English Language Club.  This is another aspect of our community service.  Two evenings a week we will create lessons for students wishing to sharpen their ability to communicate with tieng Ahn (English).  We have some teaching materials here at the house to help in our effort to create lessons that will work for the students.  Young Vietnamese people are sometimes very shy around strangers so we are hoping to have the right mix of activity and instruction to include everyone.......we shall see.
     Speaking of being included; I have always felt included in everything that has happened here so far.  The program is constructed to be inclusive and the people and the friends we are making always want to include us in their activities.  There is a group of young people here who look forward to new students coming in from Brockport.  They love making new American friends and they know exactly when we arrive!  I have said before and it bears repeating.....Next vacation visit beautiful Viet Nam!
Chuc Mung Nam Moi!!


Monday, January 23, 2012

The legend of the kitchen gods.

     Once upon a time, in a time before time, in a time beyond time there was a man named Trong Cao and a woman named Thi Nhi.  They were a married couple and they had no children.  Her husband’s arguments about not having children were getting harder and harder for Thi Nhi to endure even though she loved her husband very much.  One day after a particularly violent argument Thi Nhi decided to leave her husband.
     She went to a region far away and started a new life with a new husband named Pham Lang.
Even though Pham Lang loved her greatly and treated her with much tenderness she could not forget Trong Cao.  Trong Cao missed Thi Nhi and felt very sorry for his actions.  After months of anguish he left his home in search of his wife.  He searched the villages and the farms.  He searched the mountains and the river valleys.  He searched a great distance from his home and after using all of his money he became a beggar.
     One day while Pham Lang was in the field chance brought Trong Cao to his house.  Thi Nhi recognized him but because of his weakness he did not recognize her.  She fed him a good meal and after eating he fell asleep because of his exhausted state.  Thi Nhi hid him under a pile of straw to avoid having to make an explanation.  When Pham Lang returned from the field he decided to burn the straw to make ashes for fertilizer.  When Thi Nhi realized what had happened it was too late Trong Cao had burned to death.  Being distraught she jumped into the flames.  Pham Lang who loved his wife very much despaired and followed her into the fire.  
     The Jade Emperor saw their misfortune and made them into the three kitchen gods.  They were represented by the three stones of the traditional cooking fire.  The two in the back were called ong (mister) and the one in the front was called ba (madam).
     The spirit of the kitchen god reports to the Jade Emperor once a year just before Tet.  They tell of the way things are in the family.  Vietnamese homes will most likely have a small alter in the kitchen to the kitchen god. 
     This is my favorite piece of Tet mythology.  There are others such as the legend of the sticky rice cakes and I like this one best.
 Chuc Mung Nam Moi