Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Steam of the New Year


Dear Dick Clark,

New Year’s Eve, with its raucous promises of good things to come, has long been one of my favorite holidays.  For years I was faithful to Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin' Eve, dutifully tuning in each December 31st to watch you play ringleader to the mayhem in Times Square, even when you had to start bringing in Ryan Seacrest as backup (a lame substitute for you, Mr. Clark, if I may be so bold).  I even recall one year, when a friend got held up on an international flight, and I recorded your coverage of the stroke of midnight so it could be replayed for him several hours later.  But I have come to realize over the past few days of Khmer New Year celebrations that perhaps Cambodia has a thing or two to teach America about ushering in a new year.  Giant glittering dropped balls, drunken choruses of Auld Lang Syne, and Beyoncé: in these matters, our homeland still clearly has the upper hand.  Other aspects, however, must be more closely considered.

First there is the timing of Khmer New Year, which is governed by the lunar calendar rather than the solar one.  Our own new year always seems destined to play second fiddle to Christmas, overshadowed by that barrage of gift-giving and family obligations.  Who, after all, has the energy to make strict resolutions as the holiday season finally gallops to a finish?  In Cambodia, though, New Year comes during the hottest dog days of summer, with no other holidays to compete.  First there is the desert of long hot afternoons, during which one’s body is up to nothing more strenuous than being parked under a ceiling fan to consider the passing of time, and then, like an oasis, comes the biggest celebration of the year.  One tradition that has emerged is to throw water and baby powder at people, supposedly to symbolically cleanse and freshen them for the upcoming year, but which has the added benefit of rinsing or absorbing the gallons of sweat that everyone is producing.

On the second matter I am more torn.  Don’t get me wrong—I have always loved the rather debauched nature of American New Year’s Eve.  The high heels, the alcohol, the dancing: it all adds up to a bacchanalian type of revelry that I hold near and dear to my heart.  But Khmer New Year, in spite of having its fair share of drunken parties, seems to maintain a sheen of gentle innocence that is inarguably appealing.  We went to watch some of the students at the Buddhist school play traditional Khmer games.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but what I got was a bunch of teenagers and young twenty-somethings enthusiastically engaged in musical chairs.  It was heart-achingly sweet, and seemed to hearken back to a time in America’s history that we are both too young to remember.  Even the dance parties seem less about showing off and more about joining in, everyone eager to teach me those delicate apsara wrist circles and a line dance that appeared to be a pigeon-toed version of the Electric Slide.

And what of the intensity?  From my current perch, there seems something almost aggressively ferocious about the Western countdown.  It’s all about setting up the conditions for one perfect instant—by the stroke of midnight, you have to be at the right place, with the right person to kiss, at the right level of champagne tipsiness, and if you’re not, you run the risk of entering the new year on a disappointing note.  There is no such pressure with Khmer New Year, mostly because it is spread out over at least three days (and often colors the atmosphere of the following weeks with easy-going revelry, a period termed “the steam of the new year”).  Even the Khmer name for the holiday, Bon Chuol Chnam, means “the festival of entering the new year.”  I like that word “entering” because it indicates a process, not just an event.  In Cambodia, the new year does not appear at the snap of one’s fingers; it is an act of becoming.

And finally (and this, I think, is where Khmer New Year really gains an advantage), there’s a generosity inherent in these festivities that don’t seem apparent in our own.  Maybe it is simply that in America, we are a little worn out with the spirit of the season by the time New Year’s Eve rolls around, but good tidings here sound refreshingly genuine.  Last night, on the final evening of the three-day holiday, Dave and Amy (two visiting American friends), Jason and I happened past a madcap and charmingly amateurish drag show and stopped to watch for a few minutes.  We were pulled inside and enthusiastically provided with chairs and beer.  It began to dawn on us that we’d just unwittingly crashed a private party, a shindig for the young staff of a big restaurant.  We were underdressed and smeared with baby powder from an earlier stop at a carnival, but no one seemed to mind.  They chatted with us, led us out onto the dance floor, and urged us to partake in their wildly exuberant games of tug-of-war and tandem floor skiing.  By the end of the night, we’d all been invited to an upcoming wedding.  “Gee,” Amy said.  “I feel like next New Year’s Eve, I’m required to pull a few people off the street and invite them to my party.”

And isn’t that what a new year should be about?  A fresh start that allows you to become a better and kinder version of yourself by the time the next one rolls around? 

Susaday Chnam Tmai, Mr. Clark.

Warm regards,

Shannon Dunlap

2 comments:

j9 said...

I miss you two so much.

Andrew and Emily said...

Love it.