Changing Planet

Celebrating the Year of the Hoofed Creature that Bleats and Eats Grass

PHNOM PENH—The city has been eerily quiet in recent days. Many businesses are shuttered, gray steel plates blocking their entrances; oval red-and-gold paper lanterns swinging in the light breeze, tassels jerking crazily. The typically chaotic Phnom Penh traffic is somewhat easier to navigate. Side streets are deserted.

Many people are at home with their families, celebrating the Lunar New Year, or as some people here call it, Chinese New Year. On Wednesday, I had the good fortune to be invited to celebrate the year of the hoofed creature that bleats and eats grass, with a family I have become close to over the past few years. This is the year of yang, the sheep or goat, according to reports from The New York Times and NPR.

Upon arrival at the family home, I was handed two small red envelopes and a bundle of incense sticks, and invited to pray for the family’s ancestors. I made my offerings and paid my respects, and after chatting for a bit, we all trooped outside to burn paper replicas of various things: paper money, cars, airplane tickets and houses. We gathered around the fire, throwing things in and watching them burn. Flickering could be seen up and down the lane, as many people started their own fires. When we had burned all of the paper goods, we went back inside for an elaborate meal of Chinese dishes.

A pile of colored paper representing money, cloth and gold sits next to a small, contained fire.
A pile of colored paper representing money, cloth and gold sits next to a small, contained fire. Photo by Erin Moriarty Harrelson

When discussing this holiday, my deaf friends in Cambodia use signs that individually mean “Chinese,” “New,” and “Year,” meaning, “Chinese New Year.” In other places, I have seen this holiday referred to as Lunar New Year, the premise being, this holiday is not celebrated just in China. Seeing how people in different parts of the world talk about the same holiday made me think about how labels are created, by whom and which labels become hegemonic.

When I asked my tuk-tuk driver if he was celebrating Chinese New Year, he signed, “No, I am Khmer,” (or Cambodian, as the same sign is used for both words). I found this distinction interesting, as it is an indicator of some of the possible subject positions deaf people in Cambodia identify with.

The sign he used could mean Cambodian or Khmer, which would have different implications, e.g. identifying as Cambodian would imply that he positioned people who celebrated Chinese New Year as not Cambodian; however, identifying himself as Khmer implies distinction based on lineage or ethnicity.

Issues of translation and intent is always challenging when working with several languages. There is the question of deciding whose viewpoint should be privileged in your writing and how to faithfully render their beliefs. That is why I use “Chinese New Year” in my reports, because that is what the people I talk to call it. For the same reason, I don’t use “Deaf,” a term originating in Europe and the United States that denotes a shared cultural identity among deaf people, to describe deaf people in Cambodia.

This issue will continue to crop up, especially as I transcribe my interviews and fieldnotes. I am looking forward to getting deeper into my data analysis and seeing what comes up.

For more on this project, follow along on Twitter @ErinMoriartyH and Instagram @erinmharrelson.

Erin Moriarty Harrelson, a PhD candidate in anthropology at American University, is one of five grantees selected from among 864 applicants for a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, which is the first of its kind. Moriarty Harrelson will travel throughout Cambodia for nine months, exploring the emergence of a post-Khmer Rouge deaf culture. She herself is deaf and will use video, text, photographs, maps, and drawings to document the lives of deaf Cambodians as they encounter each other for the first time and learn Cambodian Sign Language—a language that is still being developed and documented.

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