The Plank That Breaks The Ox’s Back?

This time last year… the phrase that has begun to light up social media and is both poignant and sickening in equal parts. When Covid 19 began subjectively for each of us is a tale our grandchildren shall endure on par with Moon Landing and 9/11 stories. For the most part, the beginning of the Chinese New Year celebrations in 2020 were an Ox of a different colour to 2021.

So much has changed since last Lunar New Year, in many ways the world is now unrecognizable. In others, it remains stoically, solidly the same. Routine proves a bastion of tranquility in the eye of the tempest of change that is our present. New Year rolls around, pandemic or no pandemic, as did Diwali, Hanukkah and Christmas. Much like the ship of Theseus, which bobbed in the Mediterranean as a memorial to Theseus’ heroic slaying of The Minotaur, these cultural celebrations bob in the sea of daily uncertainties that drive even the most stoic of us to bow our heads at times.

On New Year’s Eve as the clock strikes twelve, Irish folk open the front door and sweep out the old year. On the stroke of midnight, we welcome in the New. This we can still do. Some things don’t change.

And some things do.

The paradox of The Ship of Theseus was thus posed by Plutarch, the Ancient Greek philosopher (ca. 45–120 CE). If over time, the planks of wood and sections of sails and mast and everything is replaced, at what point does the ship cease to be the ‘original’ ship of Theseus? Is it when the first plank is removed? Or somewhere in the middle? Plank 698 perhaps? How much can a thing change and still be considered to be the same?

This is my ninth Chinese New Year. Much has changed since that first, freezing fracas back in 2013. The windows shuddered and babies bawled into the wee hours of the morning as fireworks whistled into the velvet night sky and exploded outside our 7th floor apartment. A lucky number in Western mystical lore, it means nothing in Chinese and for my first Chinese New Year, F.O.B. (Fresh-off-the-boat) that I was, not my 7th floor apartment nor lucky four leafed clover, not my scapula of the Virgin Mary from Lourdes nor the sea of votive candles Grandma burned for our safe return assuaged the horror of that first cacophony of light and sound in the dead of night.

Now called Lunar New Year, an act of inclusivity which recognizes the celebration of the same holiday widely throughout Asia, CNY has undergone some pretty cathartic changes over the last nine years, the change in nomenclature perhaps the least significant despite being the most obvious. In no particular order, here are some things that have evolved since the Blitzkrieg of 2013.

It is no longer an absolute and total mystery to me. Like fellow author Chesna Goel, I too made a complete haimes of figuring out my Chinese Zodiac animal. Us early January babies may possibly belong to the tail end of the old Zodiac animal, rather than that of their birth year, so instead of being a newly hatched Rooster, I am in fact a Mature Monkey. In fairness, anyone who knows me could have told you that. The only traits I share with the rooster are the proclivity for chasing people out of my space and pecking their eyes out when they disturb me whilst introverting. Apart from that, it’s Monkey-Mania here. Mischievous, impulsive and liable to flee up a tree at the first sign of danger, the Monkey is a liked well enough amongst the zodiac animals of China except for when it's wigging out and flinging monkey missiles at unexpected visitors.

I asked the Dream Team at Lit Lab about the zodiac signs that were more or less appealing to the up-and-coming Chinese generation. It appears not much has changed in the popularity stakes, Dragon and Tiger heading up the polls for best Zodiac sign, whilst Rat and Pig linger at the other end of the list. It does seem rather unfortunate to be assigned with unflattering characteristics at birth, but one of the charms of the Chinese Zodiac is its forthright frankness. It calls a spade a spade, and recognizes that all signs, like all humans, have their virtues and their vices.

In demystifying CNY and the mystery of the zodiac animals, I also learned much about people’s perceptions of good and bad, right and wrong. The origin myth of the Chinese zodiac tells that the rat came first in the race of animals organized by the Jade Emperor to establish the order of the zodiac. Hopping off the head of the noble Ox just before the finish line, the rat secured first place for himself. It was certainly not a principled means of winning the challenge. And still, life goes on. Life is a daily juggling act of decisions and judgement and shots in the dark. Sometimes, we just do what we can to survive. The wheel keeps turning, though, and each new day is a new opportunity to juggle some more, drop the ball better.

The all-night pyromaniac festival of light no longer steals the sleep of the uninterested. Government restrictions on the use of fireworks between 2014 and 2018 have rendered them almost obsolete within the city limits. The occasional renegade will set off a firecracker to scare away the Nian and other evil spirits around CNY, but strict prohibitions have reduced waste pollution, air pollution and noise pollution so considerably, it’s a whole new CNY experience. One that doesn’t end in a bout of shellshock, in my case.

Another big shift has occurred in the pulse of the city itself. It no longer falls into a total, complete Post-Zombie apocalypse dead zone. My first CNY was spent wandering the empty streets of Xianlin wondering where all the people had gone. It was perfectly mysterious. One day, the neighborhood was a flurry of red lanterns and smiling snakes, the 2013 CNY Zodiac animal. And the next, there wasn’t a soul in sight, every noddle shop, street vendor and blessed living business closed its doors and the people vanished. My cultural ignorance had not prepared me for the silence. Back in 2013, grocery shopping via Hippo App had not yet revolutionized the life of the working mother. We didn’t starve, but we bought some pretty gnarly looking vegetables in Suguo and started to look funny at the goldfish at one point. Then, as suddenly as the world shut down, it opened back up again, and on life slithered like the tenacious and clever snake.

One of the biggest changes of all will be the widescale decision not to travel for CNY this year, given the risk of contagion and transmission of the virus. The response of locals and expats alike has been supportive of this initiative, and yet, will this be the plank that breaks the Ox’s back? How can a species so designed for interaction bear the ignominy of separation during our most treasured times?

We bear it because nature has also endowed us with the knack of pragmatism. A ship is a ship, when all is said and done. Though changes may come too fast and too frequently at times, it is always better to replace a rotten board before it gives way. A sturdy ship is built and maintained by changing what is necessary, keeping what is not. The business of life is learning the wisdom to know the difference.

Xin Nian Kuai Le.

Originally Published in: The Nanjinger, February 2021

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