My Chinese husband used to be what his mother called nanyang (难养, difficult to raise). But she didn’t turn to any Chinese equivalent of Dr. Spock to solve the problem. She saw a fortune teller.
“The fortune teller said I had a conflict with my father,” John told me. He’s a horse in the Chinese zodiac, and apparently rats — the sign of his father — just don’t get along well with their equine brethren. “So the fortune teller suggested she find a godfather who is a tiger.” That’s a tiger in the Chinese zodiac.
And that explains why a man John refers to as “godfather” shows up at John’s family home for Chinese New Year and other major holidays in China. He may not be blood family, but he’s important to the family harmony.
It’s not the first time I’d experienced the Chinese zodiac at work in daily life in China.
Once, when I had a conversation with a businessman visiting our office back in 2002, he couldn’t help but ask me about my sign, and John’s sign. This wasn’t a lame pickup line. After all, after I announced I was a snake, and John a horse, he declared us an auspicious match.
Later, John would mention it had something to do with leg count — that animals without the same number of legs get along better.
Over the years, I’ve learned many other curious traditions related to the Chinese zodiac. That the first day of a new zodiac year signals you’re one year older, even if your birthday is days, weeks or months away. That some years (the 2007 golden pig year) are better for having children than others (the 2003 sheep year, which is bad luck for girls). And that your own Chinese zodiac year — your benmingnian (本命年) — could bring great misfortune, unless you wear red every single day of the year.
In many ways, I follow Carl Sagan, who dismissed astrology and superstition as unscientific ways of explaining the world.
But then I think of my mother’s last benmingnian, when cancer snuffed out her life before the end of the year. Or my father’s last benmingnian, when he went to the hospital for a life-threatening condition. Or even my own recent benmingnian, where I battled hardship after hardship, from losing my job to workplace abuse, over and over until the end. None of us wore our red.
It could be coincidence, as Carl Sagan and other scientists might say. But, then again, come my next benmingnian, a little red sure couldn’t hurt. 😉
Have you experienced the Chinese zodiac in your life? How has it affected you?