Happy Lunar New Year - eat with me and you might already know this... ;)
My grandma had two passports, one had her Chinese age or “Imaginary age” as it is known, and the other her official age. Having recently spoken with my aunt, and researched this area a little further, I have learned there are 3 different birthdays, and in fact, ages in Chinese tradition:
1. You are 1 year old at the date of your birth, and you age each Chinese New Year – so if you are born on say, December 1st 2019, you would be 1 on that date, and then with Chinese New Year on January 25th 2020, you would turn 2. That is the “imaginary age”
2. The official age is of course that which corresponds to the Gregorian (our Western) calendar. This is on all official documents, and it starts at 0 as in the UK.
3. The lunar age. You may remember me talking in my last blog about eating noodles on my birthday – having spoken with my grand aunt, it is actually on the lunar birthday that traditionally noodles would be eaten. Your lunar age is simply the corresponding date that your Gregorian date of birth falls on, as per the lunar calendar eg:
My Gregorian date of birth is 3rd July. This corresponds to a lunar birthday of the 24th day of the 5th month, or moon in the lunar calendar in the year I was born…which makes my “moon sign” a sheep, BUT in the overall calendar, my birth year falls in the year of the Rabbit.
Your lunar birthday will change each year because of the cycles of the moon – so this year, my lunar birthday would have been 5th June 2022 (which is the 5th day of the 6th month/moon in 2022). If you’re interested, after you’ve worked out your lunar birth date from the earlier link, you can use the lunar phases calendar here, note that the month starts with the NEW not the full moon.
The Chinese Zodiac
I treat the Chinese zodiac in much the same way as I do my Western horoscope. I pay a passing interest, it’s always lovely when you hear it’ll be a good year – but I think that has as much to do with priming the mind to think positively, but I do like the story.
My dad started his “Father of the Bride speech” talking about how I am a Rabbit and my husband is a dragon – and although not natural partners, the rabbit can teach the dragon to channel his energy and the dragon in return teaches the rabbit about discipline. If you think that sounds quite like us, the “real” story of the Chinese zodiac is even better.
The story of the “great race” I daresay, most of you know the basic story of “The great race”: the Jade emperor wanted to name the months so he asked the animals to have a race…and pretty much, the Ox was winning when they got to the final stream, and the rat jumped on his head, caught a ride and jumped off to take the first month (2020 is the year of the Rat). The rest of the animals came in as follows: 2 Ox, 3 Tiger, 4 Rabbit, 5 Dragon, 6 Snake, 7 Horse, 8 Sheep, 9 Monkey, 10 Rooster, 11 Dog, 12 Pig (there is apparently no “year of the cat” because Story 1: the rat didn’t tell him the race was on and (Story 2) The Rat pushed the cat into the river and the cat didn’t finish the race – hencewhy cats chase rats! Story 3: The cat and the rabbit are interchangable because the word rabbit (mao) sounds like cat (meo). Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, I’m the rabbit…there is no cat in the Chinese zodiac, and the waving cat is a Japanese symbol of luck rather than a Chinese one.
However, my husband at one point said “…you know there is NO way the dragon would have been beaten by the ox!” I hadn’t really thought about it, but I looked it up… and this is the addendum to the story:
The dragon was indeed in the lead that day, but as he came to the river he noticed a village on fire, so he stopped to put it out. On his way to rejoin the race, he noticed a log floating down the river with a very wet rabbit clinging to it. The rabbit – who had been fiercly competitive with the tiger – no longer had the energy to keep going and while hopping rocks across the river had slipped. He’d grabbed onto a nearby log and was somewhere between the feeling of disappointment that he’d missed his chance in the race, and gratitude that he was still alive, when he felt a breeze push him safely to shore, he jumped off to claim 4th place, with, you’ve guessed it, the dragon, who had blown the rabbit to safety, taking 5th.
When I reflect on it, that is probably a more fitting story to how things are in my household!
So, in the final line up: we have the crafty rat, the powerful, constant Ox, the strong, dynamic tiger, the competitive – and lucky – rabbit, the noble dragon – then the snake apparently scared the horse to come in 6th and 7th, the Sheep, Monkey and Rooster joined forces and rode a raft and politely followed each other off (so rather than the “follower”, “cheeky”, “strutting” personalities, they perhaps teach us something very important about teamwork!!), the Dog would have been faster but got distracted by the water (“squirrel” anyone!?), and the pig had stopped off and on to eat along the way.
Nonetheless, if I am to claim my lunar birthday I will of course say it is because I am like the Queen – my husband will say it is just another excuse for me to eat noodles.
The significance of foods
You will, if you have known me over the years, likely have received a “wok hamper” – that is a wok, with noodles, oranges, and then a few other nibbles that you might enjoy if I know you like Chinese food (eg. prawn crackers, sesame biscuits, Kopi o (Malaysian coffee) or Teh Tarik (Malaysian tea) sometimes mooncake*)
*The mooncake festival falls on Sunday 10th September this year – the cakes are like pies, they have a “century egg” inside – which is a Chinese delicacy preserving a duck or quail egg in clay, ash, quicklime and rice husks. They have writing on the top as legend has it that – like the first escape room puzzle, the Ming revolutionaries to overthrow the Mongolian rulers at the end of the Yuan Dynasty, would write messages (4 characters) on the top of the mooncake – so the cake then had to be cut and the message assembled….and the cake filled also with either lotus paste, or sweet bean paste was also delicious to eat). As mooncakes are expensive around the festival time, my tip is to buy them before or after the date – the way they are made, they will often last. …and before I leave this subject, the egg is also of significance in China – signifying a “fresh start”. My dad – who I think uses this as an excuse forgetting my birthday every year – always says “I don’t remember dates, I just knew it was someone’s birthday when my mother gave us an egg at breakfast.”
Back to the hamper.
I promise you, like giving you a bag of oranges instead of a plant for a housewarming, it’s not my “cheap” way of giving a gift:
Noodles signify “long life” and it is traditional on birthdays to eat them. Therefore, even if I’ve gone out for a birthday tea (as is my usual option), at some point Dave and I will eat noodles – this is true on my dad’s birthday too – you can eat them in celebration of the long life of others.
Oranges represent gold and wealth – and therefore in giving you oranges as a housewarming, it is symbolically bringing wealth into your home. We give them on Chinese/Lunar New Year as well.
There are a few other practices – perhaps you call them supersititons, perhaps they are traditions, but I will leave those – probably along with Feng Shui – for another blog entry (as I know some of you have also received things like chinese coins, or even Jade from me – they too are simply a wish for your propsperity (coins) and health).
Other “lucky” foods include peaches – meaning longevity, Chinese dumplings (wealth), and fish (prosperity) – but don’t flip the fish – once you’ve taken the meat off one side, remove the bones by lifting them off, and then eat the meat underneath…flip the fish and the story is – a sailing boat goes down.
Table manners: Some E/SE Asian superstitions surrounding mealtime itself
1. Knives do not appear at the dinner table
Considered a “breaker of harmony”, a fork will be offered to those less adept with chopsticks at a restaurant, but a knife is not often brought – so if you’re struggling, try to use a fork with a spoon. Related to that – do not gives knives or sharp objects as gifts. This seems perfectly reasonable – a bit like not running with scissors. The belief is that a sharp object will “cut” the relationship…I’m not sure how that relates to gifts such as a dinner service or a wedding cake knife!
2. Leave a little food in the bowl
It is good manners to leave a little food, otherwise, your bowl will continue to be refilled (with the assumption you have not had enough to eat). However, this is a tradition which is changing somewhat, and certainly my relatives take great joy in making my husband and any white males in my friendship groups joining us “finish up” everything at the table…often made more of a challenge when celebration banquets are often 8 course extravaganzas.
3. Serve elders first
This is arguably simply polite, and the idea is (a little like “family hold back”), the nicest pieces in the dish are offered. From a practical point of view, this would also mean it is the younger and more able bodied doing the reaching and serving, again, which makes sense.
4. Chopsticks are to be placed on the holder, rather than stuck into food
Commonly at funerals incense is burned, and the angle of chopsticks “piercing” food is reminicient of that. It’s also inappropriate to point or wave your chopsticks at anyone as object of that shape in Feng Shui is seen as “poison arrows”. (And it’s probably best not to do the “woolly mammoth” impression at the table too!)
5. You can “thank” someone for tea by tapping your finger on the table
This was taught to me by a friend, so I am unsure of the original source, but the story is that a king who was fleeing stopped to eat and drink with his men. Wanting to show respect, but without wishing to reveal his cover, the subjects would instead tap their fingers on the table when he served them tea – so when someone fills your cup, you can tap your fingers on the table to thank them.
6. Look someone in the eye when you toast
Also taught to me from another friend who was told – if you don’t, that’s 7 years of bad luck in the bedroom. While I would argue that making eye contact with a toast (especially across a room) is one of life’s little intimate moments to be enjoyed…and is otherwise just polite – why take the risk?
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt