That’s Texan for 新年快樂 and today is the start of the Year of the Dragon! So in addition to being a big year for my youngest sister thanks to her year of birth, this should be a year of power and prosperity for all, as the dragon is symbolic of not only royalty but is the only truly rare creature in the Chinese zodiac, being supposedly mythical and all. I happen to know where one or two hang out, but then I am kind of special, being a Rat (we Rats won the Emperor’s race between the twelve great creatures, for those of you not in the know).
And why should an old Norsk-descendant-living-in-north-Texas like me care about Dragons and Chinese calendars? Because I find all sorts of cultural treasures from all sorts of rich cultures fascinating, and why wouldn’t anyone. It’s an ecumenical sort of thing with me: most cultures have at many levels interests, beliefs and strengths that are not only worthy of examination but surprisingly held in common by many, if not most, others–simply under different names–and I think it’s tremendously impressive and endlessly intriguing to learn how our seemingly diverse nationalities, languages, customs and faiths ultimately intertwine.
Have you ever looked at a piece of Folk Art and thought that it might come from East Africa somewhere–but then thought that it might equally have come from the hands of Inuit artists or Suomi ones, dwellers in Oceania or Croatia or maybe somewhere in the heart of Syria? It’s amazingly frequent that one comes across such remarkably strong commonalities across cultures and borders that it takes a veritable forensic investigation and examination to determine a thing’s true origins. In many cases we learn along the way that in fact the point of “origin” for a single word, object, or idea as we know it was the end point of a long and winding journey through many cultures and across many borders.
That’s a mighty long-winded way of saying that it’s only natural in my view that I should be happy to learn more about and celebrate other nationalities’ and other people’s most fabulous and fascinating attributes.
The other aspect of my personal interest is simpler, perhaps: some of my Norwegian ancestors lived and worked in China in pre-Communist years and founded a school that is still flourishing under the care of Chinese teachers and administrators. For all that I deplore about the darker sort of “evangelism” practiced by many missionaries under the guise of Christian faith (and perhaps others), this kind of mutual interchange of ideas and contribution of efforts strikes me as among the best in any relationship and one I’m happy to recognize. My mother’s cousin, at the time the Norwegian Ambassador in Beijing, took my visiting aunt to the school a few years ago and they were welcomed like some sort of heroes returning from the mists of time on their arrival merely for being descended from the school’s founders, so I think it safe to say that this was seen as a more positive influence than some.
And finally, my love of things Chinese comes from wonderful friends who either are Chinese by birth or descent themselves or have spent joyful time immersed in China and Chinese culture. One such couple would be my “extra grandparents” the wonderful Talbert and Ella, who had also lived with great happiness for years of missionary work in China. Again, I know both from their deeply gentle and thoughtful natures as surrogate grandparents and from the fact that they were in the first party of Westerners actually invited to return to the Chinese interior after the flowering of détente, that this was a true love for them. The plain yet happy upshot in my middle-American life was that as a young girl I was taught by Talbert how to hold my chopsticks properly, grew up eating genuine and very humble stir-fries in my Norwegian-American home because Ella shared her know-how with Mom (long before Americans ever knew of any Asian foods more authentic than Chop Suey and Egg Foo Yong as defined by westernized restaurants), and I was regaled with tales of a magical kingdom that was surprisingly real.
When we lived outside Chicago for a couple of years during that time, a highlight was a dinner Talbert and Ella took us to at a classic hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant of the truly authentic sort, where Talbert chattered in Mandarin with the delighted owner and ordered us an unforgettably delicious feast. The owner was so taken with us that when he discovered that our party there was coincidentally on my (11th?) birthday, he came out and very ceremoniously presented me with a whole packet of chopsticks bearing a series of characters meant for good fortune, and even wrote them down. Such was the delight of the occasion that I can still show you that slip of paper. I made a little graphic out of the characters too, and will share that with you as well, as a token of my good wishes to you for this year. And most of all, because China, through its beauties of people’s shining souls, its art, its rich and almost infinitely ancient culture, its fabulous food and its dreamlike diversity has been such a gift to me all of my life, I wish all of you a very Happy Chinese New Year!
Happiness! Prosperity! Longevity! Peace!
And since I know you’re still wondering, yes, I did go and look up the local dragon. It’s not so much that they’re shy, but being both rare and royal, they’re understandably a little bit protective of their privacy. This particular dragon was lounging around with a unicorn friend and just let me have a quick peep, seeing that it’s His Year, so I could report back to you with confidence that it’s going to be a grand one indeed.