"Fire is motion / Work is repetition / This is my document / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all defenses."

- Cap'N Jazz, "Oh Messy Life," Analphabetapolothology

Sunday, January 25, 2009

year of the ox

it is Chinese New Year. i spend it with my uncle's family and a group of his college friends, who work together at a construction equipment wholesale factory. the party takes place in the warehouse/office building of their company.

the space is confusing. i wander around trying to figure out what this place is. i observe: a pool table. a poker room/office. a dance hall/karaoke lounge/bar (where i currently write my notes). living quarters (i learn later that the workers stay here one night of the week). poker cards lie on a desk next to a stack of business cards, a pool table doubles as a desk. the building seems corporate, but screams "PARTY!!" and there are no definite lines between the two. i decide i like this approach to business, and stroll back towards the party.

as with any Chinese holiday, the food is central to the celebration, and each with its own symbolism. there are trays of glutinous rice balls, noodle dishes of various combinations (the long noodles signify long life), and every imaginable meat of the land and sea: chicken, pork, beef*, fish (for good luck in the next year), shrimp, squid and octopus. fruits a-plenty too: citrus of every imaginable size (clementines, mandarins, tangerines, navel oranges, kumquats), big shiny grapes, and pineapple (the mandarin word for pineapple – "fon li" – sounds like the word for "good fortune").

my aunt takes me around the room, introducing me to everyone as a teacher in the LA school district. one of the older ladies looks on me in disbelief, remarking that i look like a "xiao pengyu" (literally "little friend", meaning "a small child.") one of the older men she introduces me to knows my father. they are about the same age. when my aunt asks me if i think he looks "nyen chien" ("light in years", "young") i say yes, and he jokes that he has had many facelifts. he pulls his cheeks back with his palms, and grins. he then points to the belt holding up his pants, telling me, "this belt i'm wearing is made of all my old skin!" he guffaws and wanders off to eat something sweet.

i befriend the small old man sitting to my right. he is shrunken, but has a fine set of teeth, a strange combination. i get him hot water and soup and and offer him a mandarin, of which he only eats half (it is sour, he squeezes his face together in disapproval). i imagine the two of us make a funny pair, the oldest and youngest in the party, friends b/c no one can understand what we say and b/c we do not wish to talk, just sit, eat, and watch. i overhear my little friend talking later with a group of men about visiting Vegas and going to strip clubs. my companion is, apparently, familiar with the "classy" ones. he is a man of scrutinizing tastes in women and oranges.

i notice the old men across from me laughing, touching cups and enthusiastically finishing off their drinks. later i realize they have been hiding a jug of whiskey under the table, mixing it into their drinks. i've witnessed at least 4 rounds by this point.

the party eventually reaches a critical point – when just the right balance of food and alcohol has been consumed and the spontaneous karaoke begins. i sit in a leather couch in the back of the lounge/bar, remembering how earlier during dinner i heard one of the drunk men across the table declare that he was "ready to sing!" he tells everyone that his musical reprisals aid his digestion.

after observing many eager karaoke renditions of The Carpenters and Chinese oldies, it occurs to me that karaoke is never spontaneous, but always the sensible conclusion to a new year's party. the party-goers gradually take to the mic to sing their favorite songs. i watch 2 women begin to timidly dance, one leading the other around, alternating between tango and foxtrot.

i sit in the back, smiling, regretting those wasted years of Chinese school – never learning enough to be functionally literate to read the karaoke lyrics.

*edit: i realize now, that there was actually NO beef served yesterday. i wonder if that is b/c this is the year of the ox, and to eat beef would be negative symbolism and a bad start to the new year.

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