Sunday, February 14, 2010

Celebrating the Chinese New Year

Gung hee fat choy! 

Happy new year! May you enjoy good health, good times with family and friends, and good fortune in all that you undertake in the new year. May your happiness be accorded to you in double measures!

Above is the Chinese character for "double happiness," which is often found on little red envelopes called "hong bao," which literally is translated "red envelope." In these hong bao, we enclose a brand new, uncirculated dollar bill, which we give to the younger generation's members to wish them good luck in the new year.

My mother and aunties still carry on this tradition, and I received my first batch of hong bao in yesterday's mail here in Washington from Mom in Colorado. When Mom passes on, it will fall to me to carry on this tradition, a way to link ourselves with our Chinese culture, for my cousins who are younger than me, which is everyone except for one cousin, and their children. Over half of my cousins and I have intermarried outside the Chinese culture, and our bi-racial children will lose their connection to being Chinese in another generation unless we consciously make the connections for them.

Mine is the last generation that is still bilingual, and we have already lost our literacy, with none of us reading or writing the Chinese language any longer. Many of my cousins understand Cantonese, when it is spoken to them, but few of them are still fully fluent when required to speak Cantonese to persons outside the family and to call upon vocabulary that is much beyond what one speaks in a household or when ordering food in a Chinese restaurant. To my cousin Tony's credit, he, a gastroenterologist practicing in Manhattan's Chinatown, took classes in Mandarin so that he could serve his Chinese patients no matter the Chinese language that they speak, be it Cantonese or Mandarin. His heritage is not only Chinese from China, but also Chinese from Malaysia on his father's side.

The Chinese horoscope, consisting of twelve animals represents a twelve year cycle, unlike the Western horoscope's twelve symbols, some animal and some human (like the twins in Gemini), which represent a twelve month annual cycle. In similar fashion, followers of the Chinese horoscope use the system to attribute characteristics to persons born in an animal's year that vaguely correspond to that animal's temperament and prognosticate about the fortunes that lay before a person. Many Americans have been introduced to the Chinese horoscope by the paper placemats depicting all twelve animals found in many Chinese restaurants.

The U.S. Postal Service commemorated the Chinese horoscope over a twelve year period with the annual issuance of a stamp reflecting that year's animal. This year, the Canadians have issued a stamp for the Year of the Tiger.

Canadian stamp to the left.

American stamp below.
To me, the Chinese art of intricate papercutting shows off the Year of the Tiger best:


The preponderance of red in Chinese New Year celebratory items is no accident, for the color signifies desirable characteristics such as loyalty, honor and courage, in addition to conjuring good fortune, luck and lifelong happiness. It is the color of new beginnings, as in the new year and in weddings where the Chinese bride wears a gown of deep lacquer red.

Here's wishing all of you Tigers out there quiet inner strength, determination and ambition to fight the good fight throughout your year. Gung hee fat choy!

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