Happy Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year is a two week festival beginning Sunday January 22 this year. The celebration lasts 2 weeks, from New Moon to Full Moon, the halfway point of the month. This year is the Year of the Rabbit. Probably most of us here share the sign of the rabbit in the Chinese calendar.

The Chinese zodiac is 12 animals. Rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. As the story goes, the Buddha gathered the animals at the Yangtze River and told them he would hold a contest for the order of the years for each of them. They would all swim the river and the calendar would be given in the order which they finished. The cat was eliminated because he tried to eat the rat. The ox was the strongest swimmer and would have come in first, but the clever rat hitched a ride on his back unnoticed and jumped off just before the ox could plant his hooves on the far bank. The tiger came next, and then the rabbit. The rabbit? How did he do that? And don’t dragons, even Chinese dragons fly? Well, yes they do, so why didn’t the dragon come in first, and certainly ahead of the rabbit?

Well as the story goes, the over-confident rabbit took off, but found he couldn’t swim as well as he thought, so he started to drown. The dragon took pity on him, flew back and rescued the rabbit depositing him on the other side before landing himself. The way my wife Sharon told the story, the dragon plucked the rabbit out of the river, and the rabbit used his big feet like surfboards calling out, “Cowabunga!” as the dragon pushed him across the river. Her version of the story stemmed from our personalities since I was a rabbit and she a dragon. I described our relationship as, “I’m the rabbit, riding the back of the dragon pretending to give directions.”

Of course the Chinese zodiac is not quite that simple. It’s really a 60 year rather than a 12 year cycle because each year is also associated with one of the 5 Chinese elements, metal, water, wood, fire, and earth. Each of these elements gets 2 consecutive years—one for yin and one for yang, so they correspond with our decades. Years ending in 0 or 1 are metal years, and so on. So, if you were born in 1951 like me, you’re a metal rabbit or, as I like to call myself, an iron bunny.

But wait! There’s more! (Of course, have you not read my other little essays?) Now Sharon was a big Alice in Wonderland fan, probably because her childhood was a world that made no sense. In fact she had a glass wall hanging of the famous drawing of the White Rabbit cloaked in his queen of hearts tunic, blowing a bugle, and we used that for the cover of our wedding invitations. It turns out each of the 5 Chinese elements is also associated with a color, and the color for metal is white. It took almost 30 years for my wife to realize that she had in fact married the White Rabbit.

Why do I know this stuff? Back in the mid 80’s, my wife was dealing with Fibromyalgia—a condition that normal western medicine found totally mysterious back then. It’s more understood now, but MDs have no cure and mostly no help for it’s sufferers, but that’s another story. Acupuncture had just been legalized in California thanks to a couple of studies by UCLA Medical Center that found it effective for anesthesia and pain treatment. So, having tried doctors and chiropractors, my wife and I decided to give acupuncture a shot.

My wife was a chemist, so when the acupuncturist told her, “The wind and the damp have come into your shoulder,” it made no sense to her. But when the treatments started proving effective she, ever the scientist, wanted to understand this strange system of medicine. On the way, she became sort of a Chinese scholar with over 200 volumes of works on Chinese medicine, mysticism and culture. (I’ve since donated most of them to the Chinese Cultural Center at San Diego State.) That’s probably why her novel is set in China and populated by Chinese characters except for 2 Americans.

In any case it gave both of us an interest in China beyond chopsticks and paper placemats in Chinese restaurants.

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