F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said “There are no second acts in American lives.” But I suspect that’s because he didn’t know much about Chinese New Year. Personally, I never miss a chance to celebrate it because for me, the lunar new year, which falls on a different date in late January or early February, is a kinder, gentler new year’s eve. You get all of the good times associate with New Year–eating, drinking, luck-seeking–with none of the stress (resolutions, gym memberships, feeling old).
I’m aware that I might see Chinese New Year as low-stress, high-fun proposition because it’s not the new year I grew up celebrating…maybe Chinese people wake up in the new lunar year hung-over and asking how they got to this point in there lives, and why aren’t they rich/married/successful/whatever it is they thought they’d be by now. So maybe mine is a patronizing, Orientalizing view to take of the holiday. In which case, sorry about that.
BUT I would like to make a case that my view of the holiday as nothing but good times may also stem from the day’s emphasis on luck. On Chinese new year, celebrants eat lucky food (noodles for long life, dumplings for prosperity), wear red, which is a lucky color, and don’t clean their houses for fear of sweeping away good luck (a philosophy I like to follow most days of the year). And anything that involves inviting good luck gets me feeling giddy.
I’ve had some good Chinese New Year’s; in 2010, the year of the Tiger came on February 15th. My husband (then my boyfriend) and I were on the way to a party in Queens and happened upon the dragon parade in Chinatown. We realized we were both tigers according to the Chinese zodiac, so it was supposed to be a particularly lucky year for us. And I think it was; three months later we were engaged, four months after that we were married, and two months after that we were pregnant. Way to go, tiger!
Last year, the year of the rabbit coincided with my mother’s birthday, so my family met in New York and went for a dim sum banquet that included dumplings in the shape of rabbits. I was carrying my own little dumpling, who would become the baby Amalía. According to the Chinese zodiac, rabbits are stylish, quiet individuals. Thanks to the gifts of her (real and appointed) grandmothers, Amalía is definitely the former (my husband’s family calls her “Suri” because they say she changes outfit for fabulous outfit more often than Suri Cruise (see her fashionblogspot here)–but then, that’s partly due to her penchant for spitting up). But I have to say that she is not super quiet, particularly now that she is teething (in fact she is making an odd pteradactyl sound, half trill, half shriek, as I type). After a little more research, however, I’ve learned that each year of the Chinese calendar has an element associated with it, as well as the animal, and that 2011 was the year of the metal rabbit, which makes Amalía (and the others born along with her) more resilient and outspoken than the average bunny.
This year, according to the Chinese zodiac, is the year of the Water Dragon, a particularly auspicious animal said to emphasize creativity. It’s my own narcissistic spotlight effect that makes me see the year as the ideal time to launch my novel, Other Waters–which even has water in the title!–but it’s also a good time for marriages, and considered such an auspicious time to give birth that private hospitals in China have raised their room rates. (Hear all about it in this video from the New York Post.)
Sure, there’s some concern that the water dragon will bring erratic weather, particularly flooding, but as someone who lives three blocks from the beach, I’m choosing to ignore that prediction. I learned all of the above about the year of the water dragon last night at a Chinese New Year event at the Standard hotel here in Miami, where Amalía enjoyed her first al fresco happy hour a week after she was born. (Emilio and I have made up a song we like to think she sings that includes the verse: “I like happy hours/and power naps/sucking my hand/and spitting up in your laps”.)
The event took place on the mud dock, where I once slathered myself (and Amalía in utero) in nourishing green mud. But that was back in July and tonight I was fully dressed and joining my fellow revelers in drinking green tea shots and eating dumplings (lucky!) out of take-out containers. An astrologer gave a talk about the water dragon (creativity, floods, you remember), and then sparklers were passed out along with instructions to light a sparkler and make a wish. (I think this is a variation of lighting fireworks at Chinese New Year to ward off evil spirits.) The last time I’d seen sparklers was at our wedding, where guests lit them as we left the reception. It was beautiful to walk through the swirls of light but it was also fun now to have the chance to make my own.
But the highlight of the evening for me came when a number of “sky lanterns” were lit. I’d never seen one before, and to me they looked like mini hot air balloons. Apparently, in some regions of China, celebrants observe the new year by writing wishes on the side of a sky lantern, then lighting it and setting it afloat on the theory that the wishes will be carried to the sky. The sky lanterns set off last night at the Standard behaved like wishes themselves; some sputtered before landing in Biscayne Bay, others soared, and the most dramatic came within an inch of landing in the water until it too took flight.
Along with being Chinese New Year, last night was also the first evening we let Amalía with a non-grandma babysitter. I kept thinking how much Amalía would have loved watching the sky lanterns, but I wasn’t sure why I felt that way until just now, as I was feeding her. I was sitting in the rocking chair in her nursery (also known as my office), and she was so tired she would stop feeding to yawn, but then she’d turn her head to the right to check out the silk elephant string from India hanging down one windowsill, and to the left to see her butterfly mobile over her crib. It was as if she were afraid she might miss something, even though she’s seen the room almost every day of her life. And I realized that the reason the lanterns made me think of Amalía is because she, like them, is full of wonder and possibilities.
As the water dragon would say, Gung Hay Fat Choy. (Yet another reason to love the holiday: the ritual greeting has the word “fat” in it.)