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January 25, 2020 is an important day for Chinese people: it’s the beginning of the Chinese New Year. But, what makes this new year more special than every other new year is that it’s the beginning of a new cycle. As we finish up the year of the pig, the 12th and last animal in the zodiac cycle, the start a new cycle with the very first animal in the Chinese zodiac--the year of the rat.
There are various stories on how the Chinese zodiac came to be. One of the most popular stories is about the race orchestrated by the Jade Emperor. In short, the Jade Emperor asked 13 animals to partake in a race and their placement in the race will determine the order of the zodiac¹. Because the rat was the first one to win the race, the first animal in the zodiac cycle begins with the rat. As for the 13th animal, there are various reasons why the cat is not part of the zodiac. The one I heard growing up was that the rat tricked the cat to cross a river to test the currents and it nearly drowned. That is also why cats and rats are enemies and it’s why cats hate water.
In contrast to the more lighthearted story of the Chinese zodiac, the story about Chinese New Year is darker. According to Britannica, there was a monster named Nian (meaning “year” in Chinese) that would attack and eat villagers every year². But, villagers fought back: people wore red because Nian was afraid of bright colors, and they lit fireworks because it was afraid of loud noises. This practice still occurs in China: to celebrate the new year, people still wear bright colors like red and gold and light firecrackers to ward off bad luck and evil.
Every Chinese family celebrates Chinese New Year in a different way, but there are some common practices:
- Wearing red and gold/yellow clothing to usher the new year with good luck and auspiciousness
- Having a giant banquet with family members with vegetarian/vegan options since many people opt out from eating animal products on this day.
- Giving red envelopes with money inside. People avoid giving amounts that have the number “4” in it because the number is a homonym for the Chinese word “to die”.
For me, Chinese New Year is about representation. Despite growing up in a liberal city, I often felt neglected when it comes to learning more about my heritage and even more so when celebrating it. Chinese New Year was not a recognized holiday, taking a day off from school counted against me. When I was a student, I often asked my teachers to include a lesson plan on Asian American history and our contributions to society. More often than not, I got a quick lesson on the Transcontinental Railroad. But, we are more than just our hardships; Asian Americans have made large contributions to society and in American policy, most notably in the Supreme Court Case: United States v. Wong Kim Ark³.
With the start of the new cycle and the new year, I can’t help but reflect on how much has changed in the last 12 years when the current cycle began. 12 years ago there were fields that were difficult, if not impossible for Asian Americans to break into. And yet, we continue to make strides to break through the bamboo ceiling. In cinema, Nora Lum known to many as Awkwafina, became the first Asian woman to win a Golden Globe for her role in The Farewell; Sundar Pichai is the CEO of Alphabet, the parent company of Google; and as of today, we currently have two presidential candidates who are of Asian descent: Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard. I am both confident and refreshed in knowing that our collective efforts in challenging the status quo is making a difference. I cannot wait to see what the new crop of Asian American trailblazers will do for the next generation of leaders.
- BBC. “Why a pig is the last animal in the Chinese Zodiac.” BBC.com. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/articles/zd9nd6f
- Tikkanen, Amy. “Chinese New Year.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Tano
- Oyez. “United States v. Wong Kim Ark.” Oyez.org
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