Thursday, February 15, 2007

Let the Têt begin

Well, folks we made it. Somehow – me, my staff and all the rest of Vietnam – made it to Thursday evening and the official beginning of the national Têt (Lunar New Years) holiday. And I won’t say it was easy getting there either. Lunar New Year is a huge Asian tradition and the one big holiday celebration observed by the Vietnamese government. Unlike the Western New Year, those following the east Asian tradition of the lunar calendar observe the first four days of a new year as being important days to observe. This year Têt, as it is known in Vietnamese, starts on a Saturday, so the government gives workers Friday as a holiday day in addition to Monday and Tuesday and then also Wednesday as a compensation day for Sunday. As generous as this might sound to us, for the Vietnamese in my area who still struggle to maintain their traditional holiday practices and a 40 hour a week job, it is nearly impossible to squeeze all the necessary preparations into the single free day allowed before Têt begins. Most employees carefully ration their leave time and try to take two or even three days off of work before Têt in order to feel better prepared. For workers who have to travel to get to their homes for the holidays, it’s absolutely necessary to take that time off of work.

So as a result, I had a dwindling workforce as the week wound towards Thursday. It wasn’t a big deal on our parts – since most of our work is with schools and other government partners, there really wasn’t that much to do outside of officework and catching up on reports and papers. But there was still enough left with random minor emergencies and last minute meetings and engagements to keep me on my toes. And you could see the slow winding-up of that rubber band inside the staff members that remained in the office as the number of preparation days wound themselves down.

So as work was winding down a bit, the life of people outside my office was gearing itself up. For Vietnamese, as is the case with almost every country that has been influenced by our capitalistic and material modern society, as the amount of time allowed to prepare for holidays dwindles, there is a proportional increase the amount of “conveniences” that are made available in the form of consumer goods to help make up for that shortfall. I began observing those tell-tale changes coming to the items being stocked in our local supermarket a month ago – first just a larger quantity of unopened boxes waiting in the wings, then some unusual baskets that I hadn’t seen in supermarkets before, then an increase shelf space allotted to the candies and snack foods, and finally the all-out deluge of gift baskets, specialty items and fancy alcohols.

Meanwhile, out on the streets, the changes became more pronounced beginning about 10 days ago. My first indication that something was afoot was the amount of traffic on the main road outside of our office – and the late hours that that traffic continued flying by. Then, the Karaoke bar across the street started keeping its tone-deaf customers and late hours again.

Finally, last Saturday it all became official. The local “mall” and the green market were absolutely flooded with people pushing New Years-y items and even more people determined to buy them all. Out of nowhere grapefruit and other things I couldn’t hope to identify started appearing in the fruit stalls. Then the crème de la crème: the New Year’s trees.

I have no idea whether this idea is related to the Western Christian Christmas tree idea, whether one inspired the other or whether they grew out independently. Regardless, now the streets of my city are lined with people selling blossoming cherry trees, some chopped off, some with their roots wrapped carefully in bags, for families to take to their homes and decorate (with many the same items as Christmas observers use) in honor of the Lunar New Year and approaching springtime. Then, on the corners not already full of squatter cherry tree sellers, are the miniature orange trees. These to me seem slightly more happy trees as at least they have a chance of prolonging their lives as they all sans exception have their roots at least carefully bound in a rucksack, if not secured in china pottery.

But I hardly criticize - I who have happily dragged away a large number of rootless evergreens for my own holiday revels. Still, I will admit a slight chagrin when I admit that I am now the proud owner of a large specimen of hacked-off cherry tree which, being too large to be brought up the stairs is at least making my dungeon kitchen a little more cheery.

I am also holding out a bit for the post-holiday period when maybe, just maybe, the price of the miniature oranges will drop to such a point that I could hardly say no to rescuing one…or two…or more. Too bad my dark dungeon kitchen would only be a death sentence to these little darlings as they certainly would help cheer it as my soon-to-whither cherry is.

So, even if walking down the streets of my town currently gives me that same nasty headrush that entering Walmart on the 23rd of December does, it does help that you get a strong whiff of bracing citrus zest that bolsters you and keeps you moving through the throngs towards that long-forgotten goal that suddenly doesn’t seem nearly so important. Not quite the familiarity of evergreen, but certainly a scent of the season. And as a persistent rain has settled in to help welcome the spring time, a bit of bright orange with white blossoms is hardly unwelcome by anybody.

And it was with that kind of feeling that we here in ADRA office in Cao Bang made it through this last day. In consideration that not much work was likely to get done staring at a computer screen, I called on the remaining staff to give the office a good cleaning – a tradition of sorts to help welcome the ancestors and to sweep out an remaining bad spirits. And, as we were doing that, I put them to work on doing a thorough office inventory in hopes of actually figuring out how much of everything we have and to which project it all belongs. The staff really enjoyed breaking out of desk-jockey mode and putting the building to rights – and I will say the place certainly feels better for it. We also moved things from the hallways and pathways into designated storage areas, and now the office actually feels more spacious. A good way to work into Têt.

But as they left this afternoon, I was left exhausted and feeling greatly in need of a restorative spring. Tonight the rain is falling steadily on the roof, mercifully drowning out the worst of the karaoke and keeping the traffic on the road to a minimum. This may be my first quiet night’s sleep in over a week – and for that I will continue pray for rain until this holiday has set in a people can leave the commercial centers and begin observing the true traditions of home and family – in villages, far, far away from here.

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