Happy Chinese New Year and Happy Birthday to All!

Monday 11 February 2019

As I walked around in Sydney last Thursday 7th February taking in the festive decorations of the 12 animals in the Chinese Zodiac, I was reminded how I used to celebrate Chinese New Year in Singapore. As a child, my memories were of visiting my neighbours and admiring their clean, decorated homes with red cloths hung over the doorway for good luck. I always looked forward to eating traditional goodies only available during this time; my favourites being pineapple tarts and love letters. But best of all, I loved the little red packets that I was given filled with money (always even numbers). As I grew older and visited friends on my own, I had to remember to bring 2 oranges (the word for orange sounds like gold) to give to my hosts and they in turn would do the same when I left (I used to wonder if they were the same ones when I was younger!). I even attempted to help my friend’s mother make the love letters, only to be shooed out of the kitchen as I couldn’t roll them perfectly and quickly (they were very hot!).

Chinese New Year is also known as the Spring Festival and it is one time that everyone takes a break from work and families get together. Legend has is that a fearsome giant beast called Nian used to terrorise people and every year they would hide in fear until they discovered that it was afraid of noise and the colour red.  This helped in defeating Nian so the people could have a new start. To this day red remains an auspicious colour and noise in the form of firecrackers are set off (though this is somewhat curtailed in some cities in China due to severe air pollution).

The Chinese Zodiac assigns an animal and its attributes in a 12-year cycle and I love sharing how the animals came about to be in the order that they are at. 2019 is the Year of the Earth Pig and is said to be a good year for all.

So I wish all of you a Happy Chinese New Year and also Happy Birthday as today Feb 11th, the 7th day of the New Year is everyone’s birthday!

Kanoon’s 21st Storytelling Festival in Tehran Iran 16-20 December 2018

24 January 2019

I received confirmation of my acceptance to this festival when I was in Singapore in November. It was quite a surprise as I’d initially missed the September deadline (not entirely satisfied with my story based on the theme that was given – “My life story”). I then decided more than a month later to send my best wishes to Minoo Abdollahi the organiser and she replied asking me to send all my details (cv, photo, text and video of a story for children with a moral). This was sent in a real rush and I thought nothing of it.

And then a flurry of Whats App messages, emails as passport details and flight origin were confirmed several times (Singapore citizen flying from Sydney was a little confusing). I was also asked if I would do a 2-hour workshop on “Storytelling for intercultural understanding”. Then the e-visa and e-ticket arrived a week before departure with instructions to bring 70+ Euros to pay for the visa (I was told amount varies depending on your nationality).

I left on Saturday December 15 and arrived on Sunday December 16 with a stopover in Dubai. It was a funny sight indeed when the plane landed in Tehran. All the women on board (including myself) whipped out our headscarves and put them on (no full coverage needed).

I found out that I had to head to an office to pay for travel insurance first, then visa, then wait for approval before heading to clear immigration. After collecting my luggage, I looked for the driver who was coming to collect me and we met after a while, thanks to the kindness of 2 taxi drivers who called him for me. The drive to the hotel took over an hour on clear freeways.

The hotel was lovely and a Christmas tree was in the foyer but all I wanted to do was sleep! I didn’t realise that the reception took my passport (I panicked 4 days later when I thought I’d lost it!). I met up with most of the other tellers on Sunday night with a couple arriving Monday morning. We were a total of 7 international tellers: Flor from Spain (via Peru), Seyda from Turkey (via Greece), Kaspar from Denmark, Olivier from France, Ahmad from Lebanon and Alicia from South Korea. 1 other teller from Afghanistan whom we didn’t get to meet had to rush back due to a family tragedy.

The festival started on Monday and we were driven to this beautiful building which has numerous activities for children. There were stilt walkers and characters all dressed up to welcome participants and the school children. The stage in the auditorium had 2 levels and the quality of singing, emceeing, and storytelling in Farsi was very high and impressive. Iran has a long history and tradition of poetry, literature and stories which is kept alive in schools. Our visit coincided with their upcoming winter solstice where around a table filled with food and fruit (pomegranates featured a lot), families would gather to recite poetry, sing and tell stories.

The storytelling performances were actually competitive with judges for both the Iranian and International sections. Kaspar from Denmark was one of the 3 judges for the international tellers. Alicia and Flor were the 2 winners from the International Section with a commendation for Olivier. For the 5 days I was there, I worked only on Wednesday telling my 10-minute story in the morning where I had to stick very closely to the script as my story was translated into Farsi on the large screen behind me. This was the first time the organisers had decided to do away with live translators. In the afternoon I conducted a 2-hour workshop where I did have a translator. I had over 40 participants (teachers, academics, parents) who responded enthusiastically and had much to share.

For me, the entire experience of being in Iran, the incredible warmth, friendliness and hospitality of the people left a huge positive impression on me. Forming friendships with other tellers was another fabulous bonus. Our translators were a godsend; young, enthusiastic, well-educated, well-versed in poetry, literature, film, music and story.

For those who are thinking of broadening your horizons, I would recommend this festival but not if you need order and structure. Be prepared to go with the flow, not always knowing what’s happening. Be prepared to understand that since English is not a working language, there will some hitches and problems in communication. If you’re a vegetarian, be aware that there’s a lot of meat served (corn soup had chicken in it as did the bean stew). I had mostly salad, rice and yogurt for lunch. If you’re vegan, you’ll need to have a good breakfast at the hotel and I would suggest you bring your own protein supplements! If you need to be on FB, then I recommend you install and pay for a VPN service before you leave home. And oh, make sure you have spare room in your luggage for all the gifts given by the organisers! I had to use a spare fold-up bag that I carry with me.

My only regret is that I didn’t have enough time to see more of the city (apart from the market which was just wonderful) and travel to other cities.