We walked across the bridge above the perfume river today on our way to Thien Mu Pagoda. Deciding to walk along the river instead of taking a taxi was a good idea. The people along the way are unaccustomed to seeing foreigners (unlike every other place we have been so far) and they greet us with friendly hellos more than offers to take motorbikes or cyclos. The road itself is not so impressive; it just follows the bank of the river for the 4 kilometers it takes to get to the Pagoda. Walking in this area was more quiet than other places and it gave me time to think. Palm trees which stood beside the river were awkward because they were set against a gray sky; It reminded me of the familiar tropical storm footage on television. On the road small frogs, the size of a fingernail, hopped through the mud. Families were preparing their homes for the new lunar year and their children waved to us. These families work out of their home - their homes double as a small store or photocopy shop or any number of small businesses.
When we arrived at the Pagoda I was tempted to be disappointed. Only one structure stood in front of 2 sets of steep stairs. Four kilometers of walking for this? We reached the top of the stairs and the whole complex stretched back to include several more buildings. One building housed the car that drove Thich Quang Duc to Saigon for his unique method of protesting the Diem regime in 1963. Behind the complex, beyond the trees, through barbed wire and high fencing was a vast graveyard. Throughout the grounds there were monks scurrying around too busy to notice us (or too accustomed to seeing foreigners). We took the boat back to the downtown area and ate at a wonderful restaurant. After the expensive and mediocre food in Hanoi I have been pleased to be in Hue. The woman who cooked our food was deaf and mute so we ordered by pointing at what we wanted on the menu. Details were clarified using sign language of sorts. Everything was delicious and the price was right: around 3 dollars for two people.
Tonight is the last day of the year (in China and Vietnam, anyway). Everyone is a year older tomorrow! When I thought about the holidays I've experienced here I learned more about myself. I have always wondered where the feeling was in Chinese Holidays. I thought back on my own life in America. Passing someone on the street between omnipresent lights and signs advertising the season elicits a greeting: "Happy Holidays!" and this greeting is familiar, warm, and makes you feel comfortable. I couldn't understand why that didn't exist here or in China, but the language barrier explained it to me finally. These phrases and this comfort is everywhere, but I don't have access to it. I am an outsider. Sure people are happy about the new year. They are talking about it and laughing and celebrating, but I am only seeing the edges of this celebration: a superficial barrage of flowers and incense, loud noises and small trees covered with small oranges packed frantically into houses.
I don't feel the depth of these holidays because they are not my own.
This new knowledge has given me access to a new way of seeing. The more I understand about myself and my own culture the more my eyes open to new ones. The closer I can get to home, the further I can stretch myself to new ways of thinking and seeing.