I love Chinese New Year. And Buddhist New Year (and they’re not the same, just FYI). As a child in Việt Nam, I would tag along with Chị Bốn, our amah, to her family’s farm, or to temple. There would be great food, dragon dances, and the ceremonial burning of spirit gifts: the paper money & clothes, the papier-mâché furniture & food. All for the beloved dead.
It seemed to me the best kind of ritual: remembering those we love w/ the things they loved. And the paper money, clothes, & other gifts were sooo cute! To an eight-year-old girl, it was beyond memorable.
Each year, when the Chinese zodiac clicks over, I try to remember to send wishes for health, wealth, & happiness to my friends & family. I don’t send out the beautiful red packets of gilt, or burn paper money for my dead, but I remember. And I honour the 12 animals that mark the cycle of years.
Some translate well: Dragon & Tiger, Horse. And then there are Snake or Rat, those unloved-by-Americans years. Yet in Asia, Snake is known to be wise & sympathetic, while Rat is intelligent & brave. My own year’s cycle is over, Dragon’s flash giving way to Snake’s quieter magnetism. I’m fine with that. Animals we vilify in the US are respected in China, Thailand, Việt Nam, and the cycle continues.
This year, as the New Year dawns, I thought about what gifts I would ‘take with me,’ knowing I can’t. But when I think of what I would burn for my mother, the actual burning is of far less significance — even to this Buddhist, who is more superstitious than she often acknowledges! — than the stopping to remember. Mother would want mocha hot chocolate, and watermelon hard candy. She would want clothes in vivid colours, and money for impulse purchases. In my mind I conjure up plants for her garden — iris & roses & peonies, flowers for a table, plenty of mysteries to read. And tea w/ too much sugar.
Me? I want books & tea, for sure. But I also want pen & ink, and journals to write in. Birds of all sorts, and a large garden for them to frequent. Sun & trees overhead, the sky filled with the movement of leaves. Cookies on a china plate and letters in the mail.
This life. This ordinary human life. Draw it on coloured papers, burn it, and let the smoke curl into the night. Whatever year it is, where ever I am in the cycle, I’ll be quite happy just to live it all one more time.