When I was teaching in Taiwan, our neighborhood had a very special Chinese New Year tradition. I share it here with you for the newly-arrived Year of the Ox.
Chinese New Year is a slippery holiday.
I discovered this during my three years in Taiwan as an English teacher. Pinpointing the exact day for celebrations and figuring out which animal was assigned to what year on the Chinese lunar calendar was a constant struggle for me. Nor could I depend on my Taiwanese colleagues for help. Not only did they often misinform me about the dates, but they left out important details of customs which were necessary for me to know about. One of these concerned a long-lasting tradition practiced within the school’s apartment complex where I lived.
On the day of Chinese New Year, it is customary for those in Taiwan to visit one another, exclaiming the Chinese New Year greeting "Gongxi, gongxi!"(Congratulations!) and offering words of good luck for the year. Our principal was the one to begin these early morning visits by stopping at apartment doors to greet her neighbors and invite them to join her on the rounds of our small community. One by one, those visited followed after her until the last person joined to complete the neighborhood. After a quick group photo, everyone then returned home to prepare for their own private celebrations with relatives and friends.
My first year in Taiwan, no one bothered to tell me about this New Year’s custom. I was so pre-occupied with the end of the school year and my mother’s arrival that I hadn’t even asked if something special was happening on that particular day. My "awakening" came at 7:30 in the morning with an insistent pounding on my door.
Hair askew, bleary-eyed and a tad grouchy, I sprang out of bed and opened my door to a crowd of excited Taiwanese.
"Gongxi, gongxi!" my principal and neighbors gleefully sang out.
No one seemed to mind that I had just rolled out of bed. They insisted my still-slumbering mother and I join them for the rest of the village tour, as well as the group photo afterwards. Mom and I always laugh at that picture: There we stand, the groggy, disheveled foreigners amidst the cheery, well-dressed Taiwanese.
The next year, I was determined to make a good showing for Chinese New Year. After asking a friend for the exact date, I began planning how best to impress my neighbors for their special day. I prepared little bags of "lucky" candy. I placed happiness couplets on my door. I practiced my "Gongxi, gongxi!" until I sounded like a native. On the important day, I awakened early, applied a decent layer of make-up and slipped into a stunning dress. Then I sat by my open doorway and anxiously awaited the coming of my neighbors.
For four hours, I waited. It was noon before I finally gave up, believing that the principal had gone on vacation that year and thus the visits had been canceled. Not until the next morning, when I was aroused from bed by an oddly familiar knocking, did I realize my friend had told me the wrong day. Once again, Chinese New Year had slipped through my fingers.
My third New Year’s in Taiwan, I vowed I would be victorious. This time, I checked the date through a more reliable source, the Internet. I again prepared my decorations and "lucky" candy bags. I dressed appropriately. I confidently stood at my doorway. Low and behold, my visitors arrived right on time.
"Gongxi, gongxi!" I cried, thrusting my prepared sweets into their hands while enjoying the looks of surprise my holiday welcome was eliciting.
Principal Mei was especially pleased by my enthusiasm. She immediately linked her arm in mine. Side by side, we jubilantly led the group on the annual rounds of the community. I was even honored by being the official photographer for the neighborhood photograph. Hands clasped and shoulders embraced, all smiled as I triumphantly snapped away.
At last, I thought, Chinese New Year is mine!
When it came time for us to depart, Principal Mei pulled me aside.
"We are so happy you prepared for us this year," she said. "It makes us feel very special, but do you understand the Chinese above your door?"
I gazed at the holiday banner I had hurriedly placed up the night before.
"Gongxi, gongxi!"" I proudly read. "Good fortune in the Year of the Tiger."
"But, Connie," Principal Mei whispered sweetly, "this is the Year of the Rabbit."