The Business of Being Chinese

I had always regarded Chinese New Year as a nuisance throughout my adult years in China. Based on the the traditional lunisolar Chinese calendar, the first day of Chinese New Year falls on Gregorian calendar between January 21st and February 20th. Imagine that you are running 100-meter dash. You crouch on the track. The starting pistol fires. You bolt. But after eight or nine meters into the race, you hear another shot, signaling a false start. To celebrate Chinese New Year some days after “The New Year” is upsetting for people like me, who count on a clean start to apply their New Year resolutions.

The cycle of celebrating Chinese New Year usually starts from a day called Laba, the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month, which, if translated into a Gregorian calendar day, could be any day from Dec. 30th to Jan. 30th. A respectable Chinese would observe the Laba tradition by doing two things, which, curiously, are both about food. First, she or he would have Laba porridge, boiled with eight types of rice, beans, dried nuts and fruits. There is no dictation as to what should go into the porridge except that there must be eight ingredients. The second thing is to prepare a jar of vinegar-preserved garlic, called Laba garlic. Overwhelm a jar of skinned and washed garlic with vinegar. Seal the container and place it in the pantry. Mystically, it takes exactly twenty-two days for the garlic to turn green (a sign that the vinegar has brought the flavor out of the garlic), making it possible to be served alongside dumplings right on Chinese New Year’s eve.

I call this series of rituals – cooking Laba porridge, preparing Laba garlic, and so on – the business of being Chinese. I don’t think it can stand any serious questioning, but I don’t think it can do any harm either, unlike the notorious foot-binding practice, which, due to its horror and pervertedness, was overthrown.

Still, the business of being Chinese isn’t a light one if you are in China. When the whole country runs head over heels toward the finish line, you have to be a hardcore sociopath to not to jump on the bandwagon.

I immigrated to North America in 2006, and as a person who only has moderate willpower, I finally uttered a sigh of relief. There is a Chinese community here, and Chinese New Year is also a big thing within our community, but it could be managed. I could decide by myself how much enthusiasm I’d like to invest. I didn’t need to halt my projects in January (and in most cases, all the way till February), waiting for the whole country to come back.

Unfortunately, the improvement of information technology and decrease in internet costs soon put my parents’ scrupulous eyes back on me. Nowadays, my mom can conveniently press a button on her smartphone to start a video chat with me, a huge leap forward (or backward, in this particular case) compared to how in 2006, she had to take some time to punch in a thirteen-digit number before she could hear my voice.

“Guixin needs a haircut.” My mom told me sternly, on February 6th, 2016, after a glimpse of Guixin’s back during our video chat.

Guixin is my son. I got him a haircut three weeks ago. His next trip to a barber’s shop would be due in one week. But according to Chinese belief, children shouldn’t have their hair cut in “January” (the January of Chinese calendar, of course).

I know that Chinese tradition very well. I just somehow thought I could get away from it. Since my mother brought it up, a quick reaction was needed. That conversation between my mom and me happened at 7pm Pacific Time, February 6th, 2016. On my Mom’s end, it was already Beijing Time 10am, February 7th, 2016, only fourteen hours to go before the Year of the Monkey.

I jumped up from the sofa, grabbed my son, found the car key, and started our journey to Great Clips. On our way, my son asked why a hair cut was needed so badly on a Saturday night.

“Because a nursery rhyme says so,” I told him. I then recited the rhyme to him. It went like this:

Zheng yue bu ti tou
Ti tou si jiou jiou.

Translated into English, that series of syllables means: “Don’t get haircut in January; if you do, the uncle on your mother’s side will perish.”

“I don’t like it,“ he said. “That’s not fair. How come Vanessa’s children’s hair style affect my life span? Just because ‘tou’ rhymes with ‘jiou’?”

Vanessa is my daughter. There is as much sibling rivalry in our house as you can imagine.

“I’m not getting a hair cut!” He announced. “I just got one last week!”

“It wasn’t in last week. It was three weeks ago.” I argued. Then I remembered that he never liked going to barber’s shops, anyway. It was already 7:30pm; Great Clips could be closed earlier on Saturday. There wasn’t enough time for standard persuasion, incentive and coercion. Without thinking too much, I blurted out, intuitively:

“Don’t worry. When you guys have your own children, I’ll make sure Vanessa’s kids never get a hair cut in January.”

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