Welcome to Thailand, where you have your pick of three New Year’s Eves
It’s almost New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai, Thailand. As I stare upward at the crumbling bricks of Thapae Gate—bricks that have seen traders, diplomats and monks pass for over 700 years—I prepare myself for not one, not two, but three New Year’s celebrations over the course of the next several months.
Both the Common Era New Year’s Day on Jan.1 and the traditional Thai New Year, Songkran, on April 13, are public holidays in Thailand. For a Gregorian-calendar-following Chattanooga expat living in Southeast Asia, knowing that I can go out on Dec.31 and celebrate the final moments of 2015 with live music (even if it’s Thai pop), a countdown (even if in broken English), mountains of food (even if I can’t find black-eyed peas), and far too many adult beverages (at least I can get good whiskey) brings a warm moment of familiarity in a temperate sea of exciting unfamiliarity.
Although not a public holiday, Chinese New Year is also celebrated widely across Thailand with fireworks, Chinese lanterns, parades and ang pao (red money packets). This year, the holiday comes on Feb. 8. Thankfully, this date conflicts with nothing more than Vince Neil’s and Creed Bratton’s birthdays, whose invitations I have declined along with countless other hometown Chattanooga events that I unfortunately cannot attend. That is something you have to learn to accept when you move to another country: Life back home goes on without you.
Amidst the challenges of sorting out life in a new country, there are certainly moments when I feel the pangs of homesickness, especially around Christmas and New Year’s. Holiday traditions and rituals are important behaviors that nurture us as individuals, as members of a family and as a part of a larger community.
They provide a way for us to express what’s important in our lives and to celebrate significant moments in time. They connect us to a shared history and allow us to make new connections that expand our personal and familial roots.
The simple traditions of eating black-eyed peas and greens on New Year’s Day or sharing a New Year’s Eve toast with friends not only connects us to our past but creates a link forward, making new relationships through a shared thread that winds through the fabric of all our experiences.
Being able to participate in some of my familiar cultural traditions while living abroad is an important temporal marker. These holiday celebrations are breadcrumbs left along the path of time that help keep me grounded in my own past and from becoming lost in another culture’s space. Deprived of points in time that I would typically use to keep track of its passage, I could lose crucial milestones that help form and retain memories—memories of spectacular events and poignant moments that I want to retain for the rest of my life.
But living abroad means I get to experience another culture’s holidays and rituals firsthand. I have the opportunity to observe and participate in traditions that I had previously only read about or was completely unaware of. And I’ve found that experiencing the unfamiliar has the unexpected side effect of bringing the familiar back into focus. It washes away the fog of familiarity that comes when the sublime becomes mundane through years of unreflecting repetition.
Being able to take part in both the Thai and Chinese New Year traditions here in my adopted home country exemplifies one of the reasons I became an expat in the first place. I crave the excitement of going beyond a country’s Travel Channel gloss and exploring the deeper experiences that can only come by being immersed in that culture and its rituals firsthand.
In the Southern U.S., eating black-eyed peas and greens on New Year’s Day is meant to bring prosperity and good luck for the coming year, a custom virtually every culture around the world shares. Kale is eaten in Denmark and Kenya to bring prosperity for the new year, and lentils are eaten in Italy for the same reason. The bean and the green may be different, but the concept is similar enough that it translates across languages and even hemispheres.
Every culture also has its own version of the celebratory toast. In Thailand, drinkers propose a toast by saying, “Chon Gaew!” or “Chai yo!” before raising or clinking glasses. The language may be different, but the expression and the sentiment—roughly, “Cheers!”—are the same.
Songkran, or Thai New Year, is a nationwide party that has to be seen to be believed. While the holiday is widely associated with images of people being drenched with buckets of water and soaked to the bone by mobs of Super-Soaker-carrying young Thais, the water being thrown actually has a deeper meaning. Water is used to cleanse and purify all the evil, troubles and wrongdoing of the previous year, providing a fresh, clean start for the new year ahead.
Traditionally, the family Buddha as well as the temple Buddha, is cleaned at this time with jasmine-scented water poured from silver ceremonial bowls. This lustral water is also gently poured over the hands of elders and other respected people as part of the family-focused aspects of the holiday.
But the Songkran party that goes on in the streets is a spectacle to behold. Chiang Mai’s old city, where I currently live, is still surrounded by the original four-mile, water-filled moat—yes, a real moat. During the festival, the moat serves as a filling station for buckets, Super Soakers, and anything else that will hold water long enough to drench everyone in sight.
Enormous bubble machines are brought out into the streets for huge foam parties. Explosive sounds and loud noises are made to chase ghosts away. Candles are lit and piles of wood are burned in front of houses on New Year’s Eve to light the way for good spirits. Each night is capped off with massive fireworks displays that serve as a grand finale to that day’s sopping-wet festivities. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.
When I decided to move overseas, part of the anticipated excitement of living in a new culture was the idea of exploring and joining in celebrations and traditions like Songkran. Over the years, I have experienced many cultures and visited many countries. These visits were intriguing and exciting, but they lacked a connection I didn’t realize was possible until I came to Southeast Asia.
Coming to Thailand was deeply transformative, like the first elated moment when you’re consumed by a new love. The wondrous beauty of being surrounded by unfamiliar scenes, traditions and cultures like these jolts you from a sleep you may not have realized you had fallen into. The entire world opened up and became brighter, and I even saw my hometown, the city I’ve called home for most of my life, with new eyes.
As 2016 approaches and I settle into a new country and a new culture, I sometimes wonder, what does it mean for an expat to be “home”? With over 220 million people starting 2016 in countries they would not call their own, there are good reasons to consider what makes a place home.
For many people, home is tied to a physical space—a place of birth, a community or even a country that they had no control in choosing. Generations of my own family looked to the Appalachian Mountains and the Tennessee Valley as their home by assignment, with no real desire—and many times no real chance—to move beyond those boundaries, real or imagined.
Now, we have more freedom to choose where we call home, to choose our communities and exert more control over how we define ourselves in relation to home. We develop our sense of home as we develop our sense of self. In the same way that our sense of self changes over time with each of life’s experiences and tragedies, our sense of home transforms as we move from place to place, from moment to moment.
As the people and cultures of the world become more intertwined, and as we learn more about the common threads that tie the fabric of humanity together, where we come from doesn’t mean as much as where we are going.
Home, it seems to me, is not the place where you are born. It’s the place where you find solace and comfort in the world. It’s the place where you can relax and become yourself. Having the desire and the freedom to step outside the physical home I was born into is an incredible privilege that I do not take for granted. But in the end, the excitement of exploring new cultures and traditions, like Songkran and Chinese New Year, only makes sense when contrasted against the home I was born to.
Home is not just the place where you lay your head at night, it’s the place you plant your feet every day.
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