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Our own spring

/ 12:30 AM January 27, 2017

I got a text message the other day from one of my students saying Saturday would be a holiday and asking if I would hold classes.

I asked why Saturday would be a holiday and he replied—I could imagine him laughing—that it’s the Chinese New Year.

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I knew in the back of my mind that this holiday was coming up; in fact, I had set that holiday as a target for late gift-giving. But given all the work, I didn’t realize it’s this Saturday already.

I’ve written about my discomfort with Chinese New Year as a holiday, mainly because of the emphasis on “Chinese.”  This is the Philippines, and we are Filipino, and even as a Chinese-Filipino, I don’t think we should privilege Chinese New Year as a national holiday.

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But maybe we can still put this holiday to good use, especially in schools. It can be an occasion to think of cultural diversity, reminding Filipinos of the diverse festivities we have in the world, or at least in Asia.

For starters, we should be aware that the Chinese do not call this Chinese New Year but the Spring Festival or Chun Jie.

Our idea of Chinese New Year is, unfortunately, limited to the animal symbols and good luck charms to buy and put up in homes. Many people are unaware that in China, the Spring Festival is marked by a huge exodus from the cities to the countryside as people try to return to their ancestral homes and visit their parents and elders. If the Spring Festival falls on a weekday, the government “swaps” it with a weekend to allow a longer holiday period.

The “good luck” practices can be discussed, too, including some of the symbolism that we’ve borrowed for our own new year beginning on Jan. 1. Yes, round fruits are displayed in homes, and our local Chinese-Filipino interpretation, incorporated into mainstream Filipino culture, is that the roundness resembles money, and therefore will bring wealth, or at least financial stability.

Lucky foods

The Chinese Spring Festival does involve consuming not just round fruits but also other “lucky” foods, the luck attributed to the similarity in the way the food’s names resemble good fortune.

Let me say now I don’t believe that a good life comes from eating certain foods or the display of certain symbols.  A good life comes from, well, good life practices: working hard and being kind to other people, to all creatures and to the environment.

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But as an anthropologist, I enjoy looking at how culture gives meanings to “things”: objects, and what we do.  The obsession with good fortune and luck reflects basic human aspirations as well as the anxieties we have in a world, and life, filled with so much uncertainty.

The Chinese world of meanings plays on sights and sounds, the latter in terms of language, on how words sound to generate meaning.  This is the case with so-called lucky foods for the Spring Festival:

Fish is important because “yu” means both fish and surplus.

Dumplings are also lucky food because they resemble silver “ingots” or oblong pieces of metal, once used as money.

Have you ever wondered why spring rolls are called spring rolls? That’s because they’re favored food for the Spring Festival, representing, again, wealth. More specifically, it’s the fried spring rolls that are “lucky” because they’re supposed to look like gold bars.

Then there’s tangyuan or rice balls, the roundness symbolizing, not wealth, but togetherness, important in family reunions.

Niengao are glutinous rice cakes, its “luck” coming from the way the word can also mean “year high.” So eating niengao might mean the year being marked by higher status and promotions.

Tangyuan and niengao did not quite get incorporated into Filipino culture. Instead we developed tikoy, the “sweet, sticky cake,” and the stickiness is supposed to represent togetherness for family and friends.

Yes, the Chinese do attach luck to round fruits, but not so much emphasizing roundness (for cash) as the particular fruits’ names. Oranges and tangerines are called cheng, the same sound for the word which means “to finish, to accomplish.” Pomelos, on the other hand, are called you (pronounced as yo, as in yo-yo), which can also mean “to have.” So, eat more suha to have more of everything else in life.

Finally, there’s longevity noodles, the longer the better and make sure they’re not cut into small strands.  The longevity noodles are also sometimes called birthday noodles.

Calendars and seasons

The Spring Festival can also be used to talk about the different calendars in the world. The most widely used system is solar, based on the movements of the earth around the sun.  Chinese New Year is sometimes called “Lunar New Year,” based on a calendar that runs through the moon’s phases: The first day of each month is a new moon and the 15th is the full moon. The Japanese, the Koreans and the Vietnamese use this same lunar system.

With some research, teachers can talk about all the other important calendars in the world—for example, the Islamic calendar, which is also lunar but very different from the Chinese. The Islamic year only has 354 or 355 days, so holidays like Ramadan keep getting earlier each year in the Gregorian calendar.

Finally, the Spring Festival can be used to discuss the importance of marking the seasons in places where you do have very dramatic changes in the weather. Spring is a time for celebration because it marks the ending of cold and long dark nights. Not surprisingly, spring in many cultures represents rebirth. The Chinese word for spring has the character for the sun at the center, emphasizing its role in allowing seeds to germinate, and for life to spring forth.

Although we don’t have four seasons (spring, summer, fall or autumn, and winter) in the Philippines, subtle changes do occur locally as part of global transitions through the seasons. Cold Siberian winds affect us, too, giving us pleasant weather from December into February—a mini winter.  The days lengthen, ever so slightly and subtly, but the play of light and dark is enough to move us toward our own spring and spring festivals, the displays of our trees and shrubs matched by our celebration of the Flores de Mayo.

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