A tourist in China watched as three prominent Chinese were being buried. As the first casket was lowered, several Chinese women came forward, placing chickens, rice, bread and wine on the coffin. Whats that for? the tourist asked.
That is our custom, answered one of the mourners, so that the body of the dead man will not go hungry.
The same procedure was followed when the second was lowered. When the third casket was lowered, only a single cup of rice was placed on it. Excuse me, sir, muttered the stranger, How come they put so little food on that coffin? The Chinese man shrugged and said, That was Sing Lee. He was on a diet. (Told to me by a Chinese friend.)
I adore the Chinese for their strong family ties, respect for the elderly, moral values, customs that date back thousands of years, and subtle sense of humor. I also adore my Chinese daughter-in-law. This column is dedicated to them.
On Feb. 1, millions of Chinese, as well as other Asians around the world, will begin celebrating the Lunar Year of the Ram (Sheep/Goat). The two-week celebration is the biggest and brightest of all Asian holidays. Lest I forget, allow me, here and now, to wish everyone a Shin Nian Kwai Le. No, it doesnt mean select one dish from column A and two from column B. It means Happy New Year.
Preparations for the holiday, from house cleaning to colorful parades, began weeks ago. Adult children will visit their parents, many from half a world away. Theyll get a chance to see and to show their children at big dinners and bigger banquets.
The celebrants, who consider this holiday their most important, will eat fish (for luck), dumplings (for change), rice cakes (for progress) and soup balls (for unity). In addition, whole steamed chickens, including the feet, will be devoured, as well as fried pastries, cakes of brown sugar and pork dishes, a mainstay of Asian cuisine. Wearing red is also customary because it is the symbolic color of joy in China. The Chinese certainly know how to party.
The Year of the Ram is one of 12 astrological signs that make up the Chinese calendar. Legend has it that before leaving the planet, Lord Buddha, the deified religious leader (563-483 B.C.), invited all the animals in the world to meet with him, but only 12 turned up to see him off.
Buddha honored the dutiful dozen by naming a year after each of them, according to the order in which they showed up at his going-away party. The animals were anointed in an orderly manner: the rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the ram, the monkey, the rooster, the dog and the boar. Why not the sardine?
People born during Ram years (1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991 and 2003) are wise, stylish, elegant, gentle, inquisitive, creative, artistic, cultured, kind, sensitive, timid, neat, private, successful in business and very lucky. Rams enjoy being in a group, are courteous, prefer secure relationships and the status quo, and they do what they must to get their own way. They love home life and have a strong maternal or paternal instinct.
If in a good relationship, Rams health will stay good; however, they are also fussy, self-indulgent, picky, dependent, insecure and sulky. Nonetheless, they can look forward to a great year.
I also admire the Chinese values. At a young age, children are taught to respect and obey their parents, grandparents and the elderly. Confucius, the wise philosopher who lived centuries ago in China, gave sage advice to all who came to him with problems:
One day a young man came to Confucius with a very difficult question. He said, Master, I know I should listen to my parents and be obedient to their wishes to avoid troubles in my life, but I would like to ask you, should I obey every command of my parents? What if they tell me to do something I know to be wrong?
Ah, said Confucius, Let me tell you the story of the great king who lived long ago in a far off kingdom. Because he was very rich and powerful, he thought he could do anything he wished. So he began to break the promises he had made through treaties with the neighboring kingdoms.
He raised taxes and jailed many of his people. Fortunately, he had seven ministers who were brave enough to come to him and warn him that if he continued to do wrong things, he would lose his kingdom. He thought a long time about what they had said and decided to heed their advice; as a result, he kept his throne.
Then there was a prince whose father gave him a great castle with rich lands surrounding it. But he was as lazy as a crocodile lying in the sun. He began to spend his money, throwing it around like a farmers wife feeding chickens. He would have lost it all, except one day five of his friends came to him to tell him that he must stop before he loses everything. He was angry at first, but then he changed his ways and saved his castle and lands.
Finally, there was once a governor of a great land who ruled his country wisely and well, but unknown to anyone else, he had habits of alcohol and gambling. Three of his officers came to him and told him that soon everyone would know of his bad habits and that unless he changed, he would be quickly out of office. Although it was very hard at first, the governor forced himself to give up his bad habits, and he was able to serve his country for many years.
Now, each of these rulers had a difficult lesson to learn from those who were under their orders. In the same way, a father or leader must listen and change his ways when he is doing something wrong.
It is the right, indeed, it is the duty of each one of us to say no when we are told to do something wrong. The child must say to his parents, I cannot permit you to bring shame upon yourself and upon me by obeying your command to do what is wrong.
Confucius thus gave the Chinese people a rule to follow. When you are told to do something wrong, you must not do it, out of respect to yourself and to those who might suffer by your wrongdoing. Isnt that a wonderful lesson to remember?
I must say Confucius was great, but I rely on the fortune cookie. Who can forget the pearls of wisdom: Always forgive thy enemies, especially if they are bigger than you; Enjoy good health before Congress repeals it; Love doesnt make the world go round, but it sure makes it worthwhile, and Never make love when you have something better to do, but what is better? Very profound.
So, before we bite into our shrimp in black bean sauce dinner, allow Gloria and me to wish all my Chinese readers, as well as everyone else, a kung-hai-fa-ysai (which means the same as Gung Ha Fat Choy, with a Queens accent). So, enjoy, and may health and wealth always come your way in the year of the Ram!
Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 140.
©2003 Community News Group
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