“I used to warm my firecrackers up on a kang, a traditional heated bed, so they would crackle louder. Sometimes, they got too hot, and exploded on the bed!” Talking about his New Year experiences when he was young, Hong Yu, a serious36-year-old tiger, burst into laughter.
Firecrackers were invented, it’s said, to frighten away the beasts hiding out during the New Year. But to Hong Yu, this wasn’t nearly as exciting as the terrifying explosions. “Oh, firecrackers were my favorite when I was a kid. If I received enough hongbaos,” he said, speaking of the red envelopes filled with money, “I would buy a box of a thousand firecrackers, then carefully disassemble them all. I’d only set off a hundred a day, so they’d last into the second week!” Hong comes from Northeast China, where locals are renowned for their no-nonsense approach to life.
But it wasn’t firecrackers that lit up everyone’s New Years. Wen Shijun, a tiger studying for his master’s at Peking University, fell in love with an incredible foreign toy on his first Tiger year. He still remembers how upset he was, when he tried to spend his long-anticipated hongbao. “I saw some kids show on TV that was giving away a brand new toy called Lego to children who performed on the show. It just seemed so fascinating at the time. So I immediately started planning to buy some with my hongbao. But, when New Year came, I ran through all the stores in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi, only to find that not one store had them in stock.” And did the Lego-obsession continue? “Not at all,” he laughed. “I got over it soon after I received my next gift.”
In stark contrast to the nostalgic memories of New Years past, our youngest tiger at 12 is far more serious. “Well, I moved from Hong Kong almost four years ago,” he said. This isn’t just Ernie’s first tiger New Year in the mainland; it’s his first, ever. He’s most excited about seeing the undiluted local celebrations. “Beijing has more culture than Hong Kong, and I love being a part of the local community know, once you move from a more modern city to Beijing, you don’t need to see the American stuff anymore, right?” Ernie speaks like a cultural analyst.
For those who spend the turning of the years in the countryside, things can be a little more complicated than firecrackers and Lego. The Peking University tiger’s grandmother was so superstitious that she’d insist he follow the ancient rituals, including waking at the “auspicious time” on the first day of Spring Festival, which was well before the sun rose. “We’d start a fire in the yard, and make a feast for the deities. The food was flavorless, because supposedly the deities don’t eat salt. Then we were forced to eat it, after it had been ‘touched’ by the gods. This didn’t bode well for us, because after the gods ‘touched’ the food, we had to eat it.”
Wang Yinyun, another 24-year-old tiger, shared even darker memories of her New Years past. “Every New Year, creditors would show up to ask us to pay our debts. My
mom was always crying. I hated New Year.” Wang sighed while making a cup of green tea, something she’s an expert at. (Literally, it’s her job.) Her childhood in Fujian Province was spent in a poor, rural village. “When New Year came around, though, we did get to eat meat. Normally, with our rough situation, we’d only get to eat it about once a month.”
Chen, a 48-year-old tiger who works as a nurse, didn’t struggle with the same level of poverty as a child, but her earliest New Year memory is still a bitter one. As a child, she would always wear red in the days before the holiday. One year, her dad came home with her new school clothes. “They weren’t red,” she hollered. They were blue. The pants had a zipper down the front. “They were boy’s pants! I was furious. My family told me that now that I had started school, I couldn’t always wear red. They made two stitches on the crotch seam, and said it was enough.”
“New Year is not a festival for me. I have a business to run,” the tea expert explains while making a cup of the carefully-brewed kongfu tea. “Nowadays, people buy expensive teas for New Year’s gifts, so I’ll make good money.” Wang has worked for eight years already. She started as a migrant worker, saving until she could afford to open her own tea shop. “I’m not superstitious, but I really believe that tigers live a harder life than most. Usually they share more family responsibilities.” Her parents are getting old, their health is deteriorating, and she supports a younger sister.
Hong Yu, the thousand firecrackers boy, is now 36 years old. Describing his current? life as “overwhelmingly stressful,” he finds it hard to light even one firecracker. He seems to have inherited what all tigers reputedly possess: vigorousness, energy and a straight talking personality, which has brought him both blessings and trouble.
“I used to live in Liaoning Province. Life was good there. But then I decided to move to Beijing several years ago.” He found it a far cry from the streets paved with gold that he expected. Hong has changed jobs three times in less than two years. He jokes that he fired his bosses, but the jokes sounded empty. New Year has become a burden.
“My parents and my in-laws live in different provinces,” Hong complained. “It costs a lot to travel, to visit them every New Year.
Then there are the gifts, and the hongbao. It all costs money. It costs energy.” Last year, Hong worked in a bank. His only New Year celebration was a solitary meal of dumplings. Even without a stable career, Hong has still managed to buy an apartment in Tongzhou, outside of Beijing, and has married. “Well, my life can be described by a typical Chinese saying. ‘Better than OK, but worse than perfect.’ I have lots of dreams, but I still haven’t done much. Every now and then, I can splurge on meals and clothes, but usually I’m on a tight budget.”
“Oh, so stressful!”
The 48-year-old tiger, Chen, speaks softly like a perfect nurse should. But during our talk at Longtanhu Hospital, she used that word, “stressful,” over and over. “There is so much more pressure from inside, and from the outside, from society, these days. My work is demanding and stressful. My parents’ health is deteriorating.”
“I don’t feel a lot of excitement about the New Year,” she said, forcing out a smile. “But I always follow the old customs of buying new stuff for the whole family. New clothes, expensive food, and so on. New Year, to me, is all about spending.” Her most intense Spring Festival memory isn’t from a tiger year, but from 1976, Year of the Dragon. While she was out, buying vegetables for the New Year feast, a grocer mistakenly charged the young Chen a total of 10 RMB. “I almost wept when I saw the amount. We didn’t have enough money. At that time, it was really tight.
36-year-old Zhang, a tiger nurse who works alongside Chen, brushed aside our questions about New Year. While others are setting off firecrackers and feasting, she knows where she’ll be: on duty, and tending to patients. She’ll read the paper when she has time, and maybe will take a break at the local temple fair. “My life is pretty stressful. As a nurse, I have to keep taking exams, while working. That’s a lot of pressure.” The competition for good jobs in China is fierce, and Zhang is fully aware of the importance of staying ahead.
As one Year of the Tiger website proclaims, “A tiger is always happiest when they endeavor to climb the ladder of success. Attaining the top spot is their foremost purpose.” If that’s true, then the determination to succeed doesn’t end when a tiger retires.
60-year-old Zhang Fengxia is the busiest person in her family at New Year, because she cooks for everyone. “I used to buy new clothes for Spring Festival, but not any more. I’m just cooking all day long. I’ll probably stain them. These days, for the New Year, I just wear my old clothes.”
She was born in the first year of New China, but this tiger isn’t about to accept the honors that come with age. “I don’t feel old enough to have people kowtow to me.” For the last few years, younger relatives have bowed down before her during the festival, a sign of respect for her age. “Psychologically,” she exclaimed, “I just am not ready for this stage of life.”
Xu Xiaojun, another 60-year-old tiger, didn’t complain about the kowtows, but had some choice words for other Spring Festival traditions. “It’s like a war out there!” he said, complaining about the firecrackers. “They sound like guns. I’m a former soldier. I don’t like it. I find it upsetting. Today’s firecrackers are as loud as cannons. They’re a fire hazard. They cause pollution.” Unsure if he’d made himself clear yet, he added one final point: “To be honest, they downright annoy me.”
Xu plans to retire this year, in his fifth Year of the Tiger. “I’ve been struggling my whole life, but haven’t had much in the way of success. I want to have a good lastyear.” But when asked about the future, he seemed to be at a loss. “I can’t imagine what it’ll be like after I retire, but I think that retirement is like a second spring. I won’t simply drift through it.” Xu then carefully took a framed copy of the famous Buddhist tract, “Seven Realizations of The Elderly,” from his wall. “This should be the motto of anyone over the age of 60. ‘Stay calm. Don’t expect too much. Exercise more. And be tolerant.’ Until I reach 65, I’m going to travel. When I can’t walk so well anymore, around 65, I’ll practice calligraphy, and read and draw. When I’m 70, I’ll move into a retirement home.” His plan seems to be a lot more solid than he initially let on.
And while the People’s Republic of China is only sixty years old, Mary Kuo is a full cycle older. This tiger lived in China, moved to the U.S. for almost fifty years, and then, a decade ago, returned. She laughed as she shouted, “I want to live another 50 years in China!” As a writer, and the daughter of a pre-liberation congressman, Kuo described her tiger life poetically. “I am the child of three mothers: the Chinese mainland, where I was born, is my birth mother. Taiwan, where I grew up and received an excellent education, is my foster mother. And the U.S., my home for almost half a century, is my mother-in-law. I hope that, going forward, my three mothers continue to get along harmoniously!”
February 14, 2010 marks the dawn of another Year of the Tiger, the fifth since the founding of the Republic. It’s the third animal in the cycle of twelve. It’s the symbol of talking ear- nestly, acting brave, and having ambition.
“My wish? I hope my tea business expands to 20 times its current size.” Wang Yinyun smiles, as she always seems to, while brewing another pot of tea. The university student Wen is more nervous. “I hope I can find a good job,” he says. “After all, it’s going to be my first one.”
Nurse Chen speaks soft as always. “I wish for the year to be less stressful. I want to stay healthy. And maybe I’ll be able to buy a golden tiger necklace for myself.” At this point, Nurse Zhang finally lit up: “I want one, too!”
- W hat year were you born in?
- B: I was born in Year of the Tiger.