Now that we’ve been in Asia for three years, the approach of Chinese New Year is less novel and more familiar. This year the celebrations will begin February 19. Two years ago I schooled you on the animals that help to usher in each new year and I smugly thought I had it all figured out.
I first saw mention of Chinese New Year 2015 in an Ikea catalogue. (Ikea seems to be positioning themselves as the earliest holiday celebrators. Splashes of Christmas red, green and silver graced their Singapore warehouse as early as October 15th.) Ikea proclaimed this to be the year of the goat. Then my husband came home talking about how it was going to be a big for him because it was the year of the ram. (He’s an Aires.)
I had flashbacks of my girlish self getting embarrassed when, in the second grade, I did not know who lays eggs: hens, roosters, chickens? I didn’t live on a farm, why did I need to know that? I still have trouble with my male/female and parent/offspring animal names. Thank goodness for all the kids books I now have lying around.
So, having learned long ago not to blurt out my spotty grade-school knowledge, I did not correct my husband. A ram is not a male goat. Or wait, is it. Confused, I wondered, “could they be the same animal?” No, that’s not right. I investigated further.
At our local mall, the large Christmas tree display was replaced with a red and gold rainbow, arching over fluffy, white sheep. Sheep! A ram is a male sheep! I was certain. So what about the goat? Perhaps the Scandinavian giant made quite a large faux pas? That didn’t seem right either. Surely, they would have fixed a mistake like this before scattering their catalogues all over Southeast Asia.
And then, as more and more decorations began popping up, there was a mix of goat and sheep. These are two completely different animals. (I googled it so I know this is right.) “So is this the year of the sheep or the goat,” I asked my Chinese friend. “Yes. Maybe both.”
That cleared it up.
(Not sure if I’ve mentioned before but the English word “maybe” can be translated into Chinese several ways, depending on context. So, in my experience, when a native Chinese speaker is speaking English, they often use the word “maybe” out of context. This wasn’t the first time I got a “maybe” response to a question only to confuse matters more.)
What I’ve come to learn is that Sheep in Chinese is mianyang and goat is shanyang. Sheep were not native to China a gazillion years ago, so when the Chinese zodiac was created, they chose “yang,” which I think technically was a mountain goat – picked for its strong, intimidating horns. When the sheep did come to China, they got more specific about their “yangs” but never changed the zodiac. So technically, both are correct. (So, in fact, “yes, maybe both” was a good answer.)
For marketing purposes, the cute fluffy sheep tends to sell better, especially with younger, more modern customers. The goat, the spindly, less handsome, but arguably more accurate animal, is preferred by the traditionalists.
And so, this becomes reason #19,707,089,875,087 why I believe we are more similar than we are different. Whether it’s keeping the Christ in Christmas, or shunning the sheep for the goat, or a general nostalgia for the good old days, we are all grappling with a constantly changing, modernizing world. One generation tries desperately to hold onto old, outdated traditions while another tries to adapt and replace with more modern ideas. Such is the yin and the yang. (Get it…yang?!)
May we all find the balance this Chinese New Year.