Chinese New Year is a time of long-standing traditions. Family reunions, setting off firecrackers and “congratulating” others for making it through another year creates a festive air. People show off new clothes bought specifically for the holidays, and nary is an ugly Christmas sweater seen. There is great food that often has deeply symbolic meaning to this joyous time of year. “Nian-gao” is a steamed cake made from rice flour and illustrates the common Chinese desire for a prosperous year. Mandarin oranges, especially abundant at this time of year, suggest luck and good fortune. “Long-life vegetable” is a green leafy dish with a slightly bitter taste, seemingly foreshadowing the acerbic temperament that sometimes comes with age. However, this year, I got to experience a few new “practices” that are sure to make the Year of the Horse one of the best.
The miracle of the single fish.
The Chinese word for fish, yú, is a homophone for “surplus”, thus making it a staple for the New Year’s Eve meal. The fish served must be large enough so that there will be some left over, suggesting that prosperity will overflow in the household. So, according to (the names are being withheld to protect the identities of innocent relatives), an easy way to ensure the riches will pour forth is to cook the fish and place it on the table, but not eat it. Simply gaze at it and perhaps have the head pointing at the head of the household to maximize the effect. That last bit about the fish head was pure speculation on my part and led to a lively debate as to whether to point it at my sister-in-law, at whose house we were eating, or towards the kitchen at the back of the house, thus directing the flow of wealth through the front door and into the house. Fortunately, there was more than enough food at our feast and the fish escaped unscathed, only to be plastic-wrapped and placed in the fridge for the New Year’s Day meal.
All roads might lead to Rome, but only one…
Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, my wife was waiting for me at the door with a mat and some coins in her hand. She then laid out the money in front of the door, starting with two fifty-dollar coins about a foot (30cm) from the doorway, followed by six ten-dollar coins a few inches (cm) closer to the entrance and finally eight one-dollar coins forming the base of a trapezoid. Once again, some homophonic magic was being produced. The Chinese words for 1, 6 and 8 (yī, liù, bā) are similar to “one road to wealth” (yī lù fā). Having placed two feet on the mat for maximum effect, I only need to sit back and wait for the yellow brick road to come to my door.
My hearing is 20/20.
And to insure that I would be on easy street, I was given a red envelope containing six hundred dollars to place in my pillowcase just before going to bed that night. Apparently, this will multiply over the coming year. To my dismay, I unwittingly flipped the pillow between my second and third sleep cycle and seemingly pierced my ear with the corner of the envelope. Luckily, my medical insurance will pay for any hearing test I may need next week.
I yam what I yam!
At about 11:30 in the morning on New Year’s Day, I asked my wife what she thought we could get for lunch. Such a question is appropriate as most noodle stands or dumpling shops are closed on the first day of the new year, leaving only pricy restaurants serving multiple courses or American fast food. Suddenly, Tina jumped up and said that she forgot to cook up the spinach her sister had given her the night before. The vegetable was to be eaten in the morning of New Year’s Day, though Tina was unable to tell me what benefit would be derived from it. Since it was not noon yet, I pointed out that she still had time to boil it and then throw some soy sauce on it, which she quickly did. That night, back at my sister-in-law’s house, I once again asked the significance of the spinach, and once again, no one was able to provide an answer. My niece made the assumption that it was a health issue, that similar to the above-mentioned “long-life” vegetable, eating the spinach symbolically provided the consumer a good base for a healthy year. However, one of my nephews suggested that perhaps it was something started by the spinach growers to help raise prices.
On a serious note, it is easy for a Westerner to scoff at such practices. Some might even want to call them superstitions. However, when one considers that even only sixty years ago, when the majority of the Chinese, and for that matter, East Asians lived in poverty, subject to the whims of (a.) nature, (b.) dynastic oligarchies, (c.) the gods and/or (d.) dumb luck, the people would try to find any means possible to get out ahead. There’s something to be said about wearing red undies on New Year’s Eve. Especially when they’re comfortable.