One of my daughters isn’t too happy about being born in the year of the Ox, which is what we have for 2021. (The animals come in cycles of 12 so the previous ox years were 2009, the year of my daughter’s birth, 1997, 1985, 1973, and so forth.)
I have to admit the ox doesn’t stand out like the other zodiac animals, not cute like the sheep or rat, not cuddly like the dog, rabbit or even rooster, and although a huge animal, lacking the awesome-ness of the tiger, dragon, even the snake.
It’s worse when you use cow instead of ox. Cow sounds plain at best, and can even be a sexist insult used against women to mean they’re annoying or being slow. Then there’s “cowed,” also related to cow. (I did check and found out the words “cower” and “coward” are not, however, related to cow.)
I had to console my daughter explaining that in Chinese, the word for a cow or, if you prefer, the ox, is actually used to praise people, regardless of their year of birth. Let’s practice with the word, which is “niu.”
Pronounce it like our Filipino “niyo” but with an upward lilt, yes, like you’re gently mooing.
Got it? Wow. I’m impressed so I’m going to say “tai niu!”—tai meaning over, uber. You’re an uber cow!
When people praise you with “niu” or “tai niu,” you can either use a traditional thank you, xie xie (pronounced “sye, sye”) or, and you’ve had some practice, you can start mooing, which is what I like to do and which amuses my Chinese friends to no end, seeing me becoming an old ox.
This year, I get to impress them more by using a less known Chinese new year greeting: niu zhuan qian kun (pronounced “niyo chuan chian kun”). Let me digress a bit to explain how the Chinese love playing with homonyms or words that sound alike but have different meanings. For example, you’ll find many Chinese homes with paintings showing fish. The word for fish is pronounced “yu,” which sounds like another “yu,” meaning affluence. So if you have a painting in the house with several fish, then you’re generating prosperity. Note another play on homonyms, paintings showing a good number for fish like eight or nine, but never four because “shi” means both four and… death.
Let’s go back to cows and oxen. The greeting I just shared with you plays on niu, which can mean a cow or to “twist.” The second word in the greeting is zhuan, which means to turn, and the last two words, qian kun, mean heaven and earth. The greeting then is a powerful “may heaven and earth be twisted and turned by cows.” The deeper meaning is: may this year be one of great transformation.
My daughter smiled ear to ear when I explained to her the future of the universe lies with cows. Put another way, with the pandemic, we all have to become, imagine my arms now flailing in the air, cows… oxen… carabaos.
“Carabaos?” my daughter squinted her eyes, puzzled.
“Yes,” I replied, “didn’t you learn that yet in your Chinese classes?”
I grabbed an old carabao bookend from a shelf. “This,” I told her, “is a shui niu, a water cow” and my daughter squealed, “a cute smiling carabao.”
Indeed, I thought to myself, even old smiling carabaos like me have to keep working to get my kids through school. Kayod kalabaw, working hard like a carabao. There, that’s being niu too.
I’m suddenly thinking of our overseas workers who continued with their kayod kalabaw through 2020, their remittances dipping only slightly despite the pandemic. Tai niu, that’s our Filipinos transforming heaven and earth.
Hey I forgot bulls are cows, too. It takes bulls to take on bullies by their horns. We’ll fight the virus, fight the anti-terrorism law.
Let me end by picking up on our last Chinese language lesson where I mentioned that the Chinese word for pain is often used in Hokkien, the language of local Chinese, to say I love you, as in “gua tia di,” my love for you is so painful. In Mandarin, I said the word “teng,” for pain, is used sometimes in that way. I need to thank a fellow Tsinoy reader who wrote in to say the Mandarin word is “tong,” not “teng,” and he is right.
OK, in this year of the ox, there’s going to be a lot of painful loving to make it a year that will be ox na oks!
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