Tiger

Car alarms are chirping, buzzing, screaming. The fire crackers have been going off regularly here in Beijing for the past fifteen days. It’s Chinese New Year. That doesn’t just mean the day; it means the first half of the lunar month, so 15 days right up until today, the full moon in the year of the Tiger. Even though this is my second Chinese New Year in China, the firecrackers still sound like bombs and artillery fire to me, maybe from an ancient past-life memory. I can’t get used to it. Dogs bark themselves hoarse at this time of year and I get jumpy. There. I just jumped again.

There’s a lot about this foreign culture that I will always find foreign. But, likewise, there are also a number of beautiful traditions that I find really moving.

I’ll take you back to New Year’s eve, the evening of February 13th, 2010.

We are all gathered together in the doorway of my partner’s grandfather’s house in the town of Zibo in Shan Dong province. There are two sets of aunts and uncles, two cousins, my partner’s parents (my new in-laws) and the two of us. We’re bundled up and one of his aunts is balancing a few bowls of food while an uncle is carrying a bottle of white spirits (bai jiu). I have been handed a plastic bag that holds tissue paper in perfect squares. I tuck it under my arm.

We are heading to pay tribute to the ancestors.

Together, we walk the half a block to the corner where there is a large intersection with a large corporate building set back from the road. Its corner lawn is cut by narrow bricked pathways that are flanked by manicured bushes. Apparently, if you perform this ritual on a straight road, there is a chance that the ancestors won’t receive the message. You need to be at a place that symbolizes all four directions. I notice that there are scattered groups of people just like us, bathed in the glow of small fires on all four corners.

I ask my partner if there’s a legal issue with what we’re about to do. “Is it really okay to just light a fire in the middle of the city?” Everyone overhears my question and laughs. Of course it’s okay. It’s tradition.

We choose a spot on one of the bricked pathways and I watch my mother-in-law expertly splay the tissue paper so that it spirals into a circular formation, all by just anchoring her index finger in the center of the thick pile and using her other fingers to coax the sheets of paper to spin. Then, she pulls out a stack of paper money from her pocket. We are sending wealth to those who have already passed so that they have means to enjoy life in the other dimension. Nowadays, they don’t use real money and there are fake bills that you can buy for this purpose (isn’t there a market for everything?). Finally, one of the cousins reveals a handful of incense, which is then propped against the stacks of tissue paper and fake bills ready to be burned. And the fire is lit.

Eventually, the liquor and food are also put onto the fire and words such as “This is to let you taste our New Year‚Äôs meal,” and “We miss you, but we send you money to stay healthy and well in your world,” are spoken in the direction of the flames, as though the fire is a portal and all that is being burnt up is actually just being transferred.

When the flames have consumed everything, we collectively face the direction of the cemetery in which the deceased grandparents are buried, get on our knees, and bow three times.

I substitute my own parted family members – both blood and chosen – for this ritual. I speak English in my head and wish them peace and safety wherever they are, reminding them that they are loved and missed.

Then we walk back to enjoy the rest of the New Year’s celebration. The quiet, respectful, solemnity of this ritual feels as clear as the stars. It’s as though we have all shared a collective mediation on love. I am moved by this culture.

May the glow of family circles keep you warm as we head into spring.

Rudely bringing me back to the now, firecrackers increase in intensity outside of my window here in Beijing and it will only get more intense right up until midnight. The window glass is rattling in its pane (and pain!). My fingers jump against the keys with every explosion and the cat who was curled on my lap just catapulted himself into the air in a frenzy of fur and claws and has landed noisily on the floor beside me. He is looking at me stunned.

“It’s the year of the Tiger, sweetie pie,” I say to his shiny, blinking eyes. “It’s the year to be a big, brave feline!” He doesn’t seem impressed. “Don’t worry, after tonight there will be no more firecrackers,” I tell him. Blink.

I think it’s time to put on my sound-cancelling, super-thick, ear-muff style headphones, curl up with the cat on the couch, and engage in something that I think most of y’all probably did five years ago: watch a Harry Potter movie. Why not? It’s time for a little magic to go with all these explosions!

Happy Year of the Tiger.

– es

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