Tomorrow is Chinese New Year or the Year of the Horse. I have the pleasure of having a Chinese sister – we call ourselves twin sisters from different mothers. We met through work when I was director of a large group of journalists around the globe. Although we worked together for a time, it wasn’t until I went to Shanghai and visited her country that I felt this incredible bond between us. She ended up, curiously, moving to America and marrying a Jewish man.
When I think about Chinese New Year, I think about living in San Francisco and walking through Chinatown every day when I worked at an office downtown. I think about the big jar of buttons in the shop window I passed every morning and how it was months later that I realized it was a jar of pig noses all pink and suspended in clear liquid. I was horrified. I’m squeamish about food and especially food that represents its origins. At the same time, my second husband lived in Hong Kong when he was young – his father was in the foreign service – and when he walks through Chinatown he says he feels nostalgia – the smells and sights are so familiar from his childhood.
My Shanghai sister and I shared similar ishes – what to do with our hair, our weight, stressful work and men. We could speak for hours about these topics and never once miss a beat. She took me to have a three-hour foot massage one night at midnight in Shanghai – it was in a word, nirvana. She also whispered to me that Shanghai husbands cater and dote on their wives and I should find myself one.
Recently, I read with sadness how a young boy on Jimmy Kimmel’s talk show said we should kill all the Chinese. It seems that for this young boy, the Chinese have replaced what the Russians were to my young mind. I feared Russia as if it were the evil of all evil. Most of my nightmares as a child were about Russia blowing up America. Just as my young mind was able to see all Russians as the enemy, this little boy sees China’s rising power as something to fear. I’m sure he has not come up with this idea on his own.
I have no nostalgia for my younger thoughts of Russia – coupled only with Germany (too many Passover seder mentions of the Holocaust and Nazis). And I don’t possess the nostalgia that my second husband had for all things Chinese, but I’ve been fascinated with the culture since I became an adult having read a good many Jonathan Spence’s history books, Amy Tan’s novels, and watched films such as Raise the Red Lantern and Farewell My Concubine as well as for a time, my love affair with anything by director John Woo.
I was wondering how many times we have mentioned China in our house and I realized not much. I got Tin Lon Po Po, A Red-Riding Hood Story from China by Ed Young. We all know the story of Red-Riding Hood who a wolf tries to fool into believing he’s her grandmother, but what is most interesting in Ed Young’s version where Red-Riding Hood is represented by three sisters, Shang, Tao and Paotze, is the inscription at the beginning of the book:
To all the wolves of the world
for lending their good name
as a tangible symbol
for our darkness.
Last night, as Tin and I were getting ready for bed, we had tension around cleaning his room up. It’s been bitter cold in New Orleans, where we live in the equivalent of grass huts and the temperature has hovered at 30 degrees for over 48 hours. We have cabin fever. In this tussle of having to clean up his room, brush his teeth and change out of his warm clothes into pajamas, he said to me, “I’m going to get my friends and we’re going to kick you out of the house and you are going to live all alone.” I said, “Well now, that’s something you never have to worry about because I love you and you would never be all alone or kicked out of my house.”
When the boy told Jimmy Kimmel that we should kill all the people in China, Kimmel said, “That’s interesting.” I’m sure Kimmel was surprised and maybe as a comedian, amused, but as a parent, what would he have told his own children? The little boy’s comment was a perfect opportunity for a conversation about China and its ancient culture, about its people and their literature, music, cuisine and day-to-day normalcy. It was a good opportunity not to try to reason with a six year old, but to help him see how Chinese people are different, which is good, and at the same time just like us, also good. Perhaps even share a story about a six-year-old boy in China named Cheng, and Cheng goes to school and plays with trains and loves to be outside in the sunshine just like you. Would you really want something bad to happen to Cheng? Sometimes, just something as simple as focusing on an individual rather than the Other, helps children learn empathy.