Earlier this week was the celebration of the Chinese New Year. This is a Year of the Monkey according to the Chinese zodiac, although that’s always seemed kind of fishy to me even though there are no fish in the Chinese zodiac. A year, even a lunar year, is a really long time. How likely is it that all people within that time share similar characteristics? It’s a question I asked when I first learned about the Chinese zodiac, from a placemat.
It was my first time at a Chinese restaurant. In fact it was one of my first times at a restaurant because I was only nine, and I’m old enough that Chinese restaurants then were unusual. The Hunan China Palace, on top of the hill behind K-Mart, with its large sign with a red neon star like a blinking ruby, stood out in a neighborhood of fast food places, auto parts stores, and the nearby mall. Inside the restaurant was dark and hushed. My parents, our next door neighbors, and I were the only patrons there. The waiter was as stiff and formal as his dress. He wore an austere black suit and a black bow tie. My mother ordered chow mein and an egg roll for me. I’d had chow mein at home, made by my mother, but this was nothing like hers. The celery and ground beef were replaced by strange vegetables and strips of pork, and it didn’t have the crunchy fried noodles that came in a can. Where were the crunchy fried noodles? I still liked it, and while I waited for the food I read about the Chinese zodiac on the placemat. It was fascinating and exciting to think what peoples’ specific signs said about them. Even if I didn’t recognize all the famous people listed I knew who George Washington (Year of the Rat) was, and I knew who Shirley Temple (Year of the Dragon) was, and then I found my birth year. A Year of the Dog. And who were the famous Dogs? Only one name: David Niven. It’s a lucky thing the place was so hushed and formal or I would have yelled out, “Who the hell is David Niven?” I’d never seen a Pink Panther film. I didn’t even know he was an actor. Being born in a Year of the Dog felt like a curse, although I did appreciate the qualities of a Dog: loyal, which I am, sincere, which I hope I am, and decisive, which I’m not so sure about.
The neighborhood where the restaurant was has changed significantly. The fast food places and auto parts stores have mostly been replaced by restaurants ranging from Mexican to Thai, and the area has grown incredibly diverse. Small shops with goods from all across the eastern hemisphere jostle each other up and down the blocks so now the big box store that replaced the mall is what stands out, a band of Americana in a rainbow of nations. The area has grown into something very different than what it once was.
And that makes me think that the person I am wasn’t fixed at birth, that I am more than someone born in a Year of the Dog. I am an individual made up of diverse parts.
And then I turn around and think there might be something to the zodiac, both Chinese and Western. The stars aren’t fixed, nor is the Earth a closed system. Perhaps it’s not as clear as the philosophies we’ve dreamt of would have us believe, but maybe the stars do have some influence over us. The Chinese years are based on a lunar calendar and there’s no question that the Moon holds some sway over us. Numerous animal species tie their births and mating cycles to the Moon and the tides it causes. Who’s to say the radiation of even distant stars doesn’t touch us in ways that make us who we are? How much of a representative of the Year of the Dog am I?
Well, one thing I can say with a fair amount of certainty is I didn’t get the decisive part.
And now, for all those born in a Year of The Monkey…