Saturday, February 13, 2010

Year of the Tiger

It’s the eve of the lunar new year. The older I get the more I appreciate rituals marking the passing of time. Out with the old, in with the new.

Out – Bad karma. In – Good karma.

Out – Delayed gratification. In – Living every moment with passion, joy, gratitude and peace.

Out – Selfish, lying, insecure, emotionally stunted, vapid, FUBAR, sleepwalking coward. In – Witty, smart, creative, inspiring, funny, sexy love interest.

There are a lot of different old history/New Year, letting go/starting over, fuck off/come hither, cleaning out/moving up rituals that I’ve only discovered as an adult. There are two in particular - the traditions surrounding Lunar New Year and the rituals of Loy Krathong observed in Thailand - that are much more meaningful to me than the lobotomizing pressure to find an out-of-control party and the Times Square ball drop countdown that we're told are the proper ways to ring in a new year.

Y2K - the new year, the new decade, the new millenium - was so depressingly underwhelming not because of what I did, where I was and who I was with, but because of the expectations that pointed out how those things weren't crazy drunken fun enough.

My parents never really observed Chinese New Year when we were growing up except for the red envelope which, although it was the only custom we practiced, was personally well-loved because parents and older adult relatives gave us kids money in a red envelope for good luck. Beyond that, I was never exposed to the colorful traditions and deep superstitions that underlie a lot of Chinese New Year customs. Instead I've learned them over the years from friends, and Amy Tan novels.

It turns out my roommate, "D," grew up with very superstitious Taiwanese parents, so with her help and that of Wikipedia, I may have increased my Lunar New Year knowledge by 50 percent this year. She and I are both tigers, and 2010 is the year of the tiger. The prediction is that it will be a difficult Year of the Tiger for tigers, though it is said that most animals in the zodiac have difficult years during the year of their sign. Follow?

Anyway, this morning D reminded me that to ward off the year's difficulties I needed to put on a red string before midnight, and wear it every day in the new lunar year. After racking my brain for where I might find a red string in my apartment, I thought of my sewing kit. I also threaded on a few beads for fun.

Then another friend posted on Facebook that tigers are supposed to wear red underwear every day beginning tomorrow. My one red pair is at the bottom of my laundry basket, and I'm not sure what to do about the next 360ish days (lunar calendars are unpredictable that way). But at least I have the string.

I do remember the last Year of the Tiger, 1998, being the most difficult I'd had up to that point. But I was much younger, and compared to the years I've had since, it wasn't really that bad. I don't even know enough about Taiwanese culture to be superstitious, but I figured that I can use all the help I can get, short of 21 new pairs of red underwear.

Chinese New Year is about being with family and friends. It's about performing scores of rituals to appease the gods and ensure all sorts of auspicious things for approaching times. In fact, the list of things you're supposed to do and say, and not do and say, is so long that you're probably guaranteed even more disappointment than when you're trying to find the most annoying party possible on Dec 31.

I made a respectable effort for the Year of the Tiger. I have oranges. I have sweets in red wrappers. I have noodles for longevity. I cleaned my room. I have three types of sticky rice cakes in the house.

D said that an old Chinese woman told her that to keep the Tiger Year's difficulties at bay, my roommate should take an old pair of slippers, stand in front of our building, and bang the slippers left and right at the doorstep while chanting in Chinese, "Old spirits go away, good spirits come and stay."

THEN, after our neighbors have completely flipped out, she should wrap the slippers in paper and burn them, along with paper money and other offerings to the spirits.

If we lived in Chinatown, we'd be doing this along with our neighbors. West Indians are not so understanding.

I didn't find Chinatown much more chaotic today than any other Saturday afternoon. There were still too many people on Canal Street and too many tourists staring and taking pictures at the fish markets. Lines were long. The New Year's parade is not until next weekend. The difference was that oranges, and flowers, and of course all the gaudy red envelopes, red wall hangings, red lanterns and red characters were doing brisk business. I couldn't find many places that had live fish, and I'm not sure if it's because of winter or because everyone wanted their whole fish for prosperity and fortune.

This white dude at the grocery store asked me how to prepare some packaged Chinese buns.

"Do you steam these?"

"I guess so," I said, looking at the package. What, I'm supposed to know because I look Chinese? "But don't take my word for it."

He walked away annoyed and disappointed that he didn't get a good answer. I should have messed with him so we both could have gone home happy.

"Marinate them in soy sauce, put coins inside for good luck and microwave for 20 minutes."

Loy Krathong, a fall lantern festival celebrated in Thailand, has a wonderfully cathartic ritual of setting afloat banana leaf rafts on a current to send away the year's bad karma while carrying coins as offerings to the River Goddess.

To Thai people who do this every year it probably seems commercialized and over-hyped, the way I hate the lameness of the American new year, but around Loy Krathong this past year - almost my first anniversary of no longer living in Thailand - I realized that I knew of no reasonable place to launch a raft loaded with my heavy burdens into a body of water. There are lots of places along the Hudson where you can toss a raft in from high above the water line, and I imagine you just have to hope it lands right side up so your bad karma and good offerings don't sink to the bottom and get stuck in Hudson River muck.

Upon further thought, though, I remembered that closer to the George Washington Bridge you can launch a raft right at the river's edge, with water lapping at your feet, as if you were Huck Finn.

We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.

1 comment:

C Money said...

Ten days, no post. Tsk.