Ask a Volunteer
Q: Which celebration of heritage or culture from your host country have you found most interesting?
A: The celebration I have found most interesting is Tsagaan Sar, the Lunar New Year/White Moon Festival. Once the Buddhist authorities have identified the last moon of the year, Mongolians celebrate Bitguun on the night of the new moon. As the first sliver of the next moon appears we wake up and climb a mountain to greet the sun. Then we gather with our immediate family to eat meat dumplings, drink milk tea, and exchange a few presents. During the first day of Tsagaan Sar we visit and greet our elder family members. On the second day we visit our younger family members. On the third day we visit friends. The celebration inevitably carries over to the weekend, especially if we have to travel to visit distant family members. At each home we take out a ceremonial blue scarf (Khatik) and greet everyone we haven't seen yet. We support the arms of our elders with the greeting, and maybe they sniff our cheek. It is a great time to admire each other's silk deel, a long warm robe that is traditional in Mongolia. As a man, I should also have a nice belt, boots, hat, snuff bottle, and a big stomach for all the food that I will eat.
Wallace Good, English Teacher Trainer Peace Corps Volunteer, Mongolia
A: In Mongolia, one of the biggest holidays is Tsagaan Sar, which in English means “white month”. This is a time for families to come together to celebrate the New Year after the cold winter in Mongolia has finally come to an end. The most important thing during Tsagaan Sar is that young people and old people are happy and given a chance to see everyone in their family. Food is shared with everyone, small gifts are shared too, and everyone dresses in their best traditional clothes called deels, which are made from beautiful fabric and often hand sewn by the families who wear them. Everyone walks around the city visiting up to 20 or 30 family homes every day for four days. It is an amazing holiday, almost like an American Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years all put together into one big holiday.
Travis Hellstrom, General Health Peace Corps Volunteer, Mongolia
A: My favorite celebration of culture in Thailand is anything related to Buddhism. Buddhism is the prominent religion/philosophy/lifestyle in Thailand, as at least 90% of Thai people are Buddhist. Buddhist monks walk to all of the homes every morning to collect food from people's offerings. Offering food to a monk, pronounced "sigh baat pra" in Thai, is a way for people to make merit and receive good karma. Monks can only eat before noon each day. I have been to many monk ordination celebrations, which involve going to a temple in a big parade of people who are singing and dancing the whole way there, a large meal all together, lots of Thai music, shaving the head of the boy becoming a monk, and washing him. It's a lot of fun!
Meaghan Murphy, Environmental Education Peace Corps Volunteer, Thailand
A: April 13-15, in conjunction with the traditional Thai New Year, Thailand celebrates Songkran also known as the "Water Festival." April is known to be the hottest month of the year in Thailand, and the local nationals like to constantly splash each other with water to wash away the heat. However, this year might be colder than usual. I am told that despite the cold weather, people will still revel in washing away all bad omens by cleaning houses, villages, temples and spirit houses.
Tracy Wise, Elementary Education Peace Corps Volunteer, Thailand
A: I live in Northeast Thailand. Each year my town holds a 3-day ghost mask festival called Phitakon. The unique masks are made of bamboo, wood and coconut and are painted very skillfully. Many visitors come to watch the masked villagers parade and dance in the streets.
This festival recalls a story of a King who went into the forest for so long that his people believed he had died. To their surprise, after many years he returned, and everyone celebrated. Ghosts from the forest accompanied him, and wore masks to avoid scaring the people.
The festival starts with a 3 a.m. ceremony, when a man dives into the river to find a marble believed to be the spirit of a monk who protects the village. Over the next few days, there are other religious ceremonies, as well as a rocket festival in hopes of bringing rain to help the crops. And like everywhere in Thailand, there is lots of delicious food!
Sarah Bluth, English Teacher Trainer Peace Corps Volunteer, Thailand
A: My favorite Cambodian holiday is Bon Om Thook or “Water Festival.” Occurring in November, this holiday marks the end of rainy season and is celebrated with boat competitions. Leading up to the water festival, each province holds a competition to find the fastest team. The winners of the provincial competitions go to Phnom Penh, the capital city, to compete for the national title. During this time everyone floods into the capital city to watch the boat races on the riverfront. It is a wonderful celebration. I was fortunate enough to compete in one of the provincial tournaments—I’m not sure if I had more fun competing, or the community had more fun watching a bunch of foreigners floundering around in our boat! Either way, it was a great cross-cultural experience.
Keiko Valente, English Education Peace Corps Volunteer, Cambodia
A: Hands down, the Khmer New Year celebrations have been the most interesting. About a month prior to the actual holiday students began playing traditional games at school in preparation for the New Year (which is in April). The games have been played for centuries and centuries. It's so touching see students carrying on a tradition that forces everyone to think about how they can improve together as a community and a country.
Travis Thompson, English Education Peace Corps Volunteer, Cambodia
A: The Philippines is known for its many celebrations, ranging from small barangay fiestas to city-wide celebrations. Most of the celebrations are religious in nature, as more than 80% of Filipinos are Christian. My province, the province of Aklan, is famous for Ati-atihan Festival which is held every January. This festival was originally a pagan celebration by the Atis (indigenous blacks) from Panay Island, but during Spanish colonial rule, it was turned into a festival to celebrate Santo Niño (the child Christ). Nowadays, Aklanons mix elements from the native Ati festival with the Christian celebration of Santo Niño. The celebrants paint their bodies black with charcoal to resemble the native Ati people, and dress in elaborate outfits crafted from indigenous materials. They dance to the explosive beat of drums while holding figurines of Santo Niño above their heads and shouting, "Viva kay Senor Santo Niño! Viva!" (Long live the child Christ) and "Hala bira, puera pasma!" (Keep going, never tire!"). It is undoubtedly a celebration that is quintessentially Filipino; a festival where you see old women in traditional house dresses dancing next to young children in elaborate headdresses twice their height, where you see conservative men dressed in miniskirts or adult diapers, carrying a statue of Santo Niño and urging everyone to dance in the streets and praise the child Christ. It is a unique blend of the many aspects of Filipino history, where one can witness the mixing of native traditions with Spanish influence every January in the streets of Aklan.
Rebecca Ort, English Education Peace Corps Volunteer, Philippines
A: In the Philippines, there are many cultural celebrations all across the regions. Sinulog, for example, is a huge cultural festival celebrated in the Visayas region, on the island of Cebu. The festival honors the many native groups of the region, and teams from all over gather together, in native dress, to perform dances that narrate the history of the tribe. The costumes are full of color, with many styles of fabric; and the music is loud and full of percussion. The story most often illustrates the arrival of the Spaniards to the islands, and there is always one woman who dances at the front throughout the performance with a Santo Niño (baby Jesus) religious relic, like an offering. These festivals also include parades, music, and a wide variety of activities.
Shannon Will, Community Development Peace Corps Volunteer, Philippines
A: The celebration or holiday that I have found to be the most interesting in the Philippines is Christmas Eve. During that holiday, many Filipinos attend midnight masses; altars of important religious figures are elaborately decorated and displayed; and students walk door to door, singing Christmas carols in their respective neighborhoods. What great ways to celebrate the holiday!
Raymond Ki, English Education Peace Corps Volunteer, Philippines
A: Just as in the U.S., many high schools in the Philippines hold a prom at the end of each school year to “pass the torch” from the fourth year students to their third year counterparts. After a lengthy afternoon ceremony, the students have time to let loose and dance for a few songs. My school has a small but significant number of students who are Ifugao—a Filipino ethnic minority group from my island's highlands. After playing some Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus hits, the prom's DJ played a few traditional Ifugao songs, and the Ifugao students and staff gathered at the front of the dance floor for an impromptu native dance performance that I got to participate in! It is always interesting to me to see that in spite of such pervasive influence of western culture in the Philippines, Filipinos can still preserve their culture and make the traditions uniquely Pinoy.
Ryan Whalen, English Education Peace Corps Volunteer, Philippines
A: In China, I have found that every holiday has been quite an experience. However, one of the best memories that I have is of Spring Festival or Chinese New Year. A few weeks before the big holiday, a few of my friends and co-workers invited me to the countryside for lunch. Little did I know, our lunch would actually be from a pig that we would watch being slaughtered. I have never seen such an event, but my Chinese friends told me that it was custom for each family to slaughter a pig and then make sausages and other dishes with the meat. Watching the actual slaughter was very difficult and not something I am used to, but seeing how traditional life is on the farm and knowing where my food really comes from was unforgettable. After we watched the "event," we played mahjong and cards and then shared a good meal with each other. Overall, an amazing experience... and the photos are something else.
Wendy Segars, English Education Peace Corps Volunteer, China
A: The most interesting cultural celebration I have witnessed in Fiji is a funeral. Great care is taken in preparation for the rituals to come. Family and friends journey to the village of the deceased to pay respects to their loved one. Work is divided between men and women and neighboring villages are even asked to take part in the preparations. Funerals usually last 3 days, the first day being filled with preparation work; buying food and setting up arrangements for guests. On the second day men will butcher a cow or pig to feed the guests and women will start cooking. The third day, guests will arrive to pay respects to the deceased; women bring beautiful woven mats with intricate designs and men will bring root crops and a pig for the village to divide as a thank you gift for all their hard work. Guests and relatives will mourn over the deceased on this day, while the village is quiet and respectful. After the church service a procession is led to the grave site, where the burial takes place. Once the burial is complete, family members and guests will be served by the villagers, a lunch in honor of the deceased. Lunch continues for several hours until everyone has eaten; then root crops and meat will be divided amongst the families. In the evening, leftovers will be eaten by those who haven’t left for home and grog sessions with singing and guitars will be held all over the village. After one year, a family member will return to the grave site to encase the grave with cement and adorn it with Fijian fabric and flowers. My experience prior to Fiji has been that funerals are large burdens on immediate family and are not openly discussed. In Fiji everyone comes together to share the burden and openly acknowledges the sadness and shares memories. This cultural celebration where extended family comes together to commemorate one’s life has impacted my views on confronting death.
Melissa Moss, General Health Peace Corps Volunteer, Fiji
A: My favorite part of Samoan culture is the umu. The umu is a traditional Samoan cooking oven that is used every Sunday for a special brunch called To'anai. It is an incredible amount of work, but the food is delicious!
Natalie Ziemba, Elementary Education Peace Corps Volunteer, Samoa