Chinese New Year is a slippery holiday. I found this out during my three years in Taiwan as an English teacher.
Pinpointing the exact day for celebrations and figuring out which animal was assigned to what year on the Chinese lunar calendar was a struggle. And I couldn't depend on my Taiwanese colleagues for help. Not only did they often misinform me about the dates, but they also left out important details.
One such detail concerned a longstanding tradition practiced within the school's apartment complex where I lived.
On the day Chinese New Year begins, it is customary for those in Taiwan to visit one another, exclaiming the greeting "Gongxi, gongxi!" (Congratulations!) and offering words of good luck for the year. Our principal began these early morning visits by stopping at apartment doors to greet her neighbors and invite them to join her on the rounds of our small community. One by one, those visited followed her until the last person joined to complete the neighborhood. After a quick group photo, everyone returned home to prepare their own celebrations with relatives and friends.
My first year in Taiwan, no one bothered to tell me about this. I was so preoccupied with the end of the school year and my mother's arrival that I hadn't even asked if something special was happening on that particular day. My "awakening" came at 7:30 a.m. with an insistent pounding on my door. Hair askew, bleary-eyed, and a tad grouchy, I opened my door to a crowd of excited Taiwanese.
"Gongxi, gongxi!" my principal and neighbors gleefully sang out.
No one seemed to mind that I had just rolled out of bed. They insisted that my still-slumbering mother and I join them for the rest of the village tour and the group photo afterward. Mom and I always laugh at that picture: Two groggy, disheveled foreigners amid cheery, well-dressed Taiwanese.
The next year, I was determined to make a good showing. After asking a friend for the precise date, I began planning how best to impress my neighbors on their special day. I prepared little bags of "lucky" candy. I placed "happiness couplets" on my door. I practiced my "Gongxi, gongxi!" until I sounded like a native. On the important day, I awakened early, applied a decent layer of makeup, and slipped into a stunning dress. Then I sat by my open doorway and eagerly awaited the arrival of my neighbors.
For four hours, I waited. It was noon before I finally gave up, believing that the principal had gone on vacation and the visits had been canceled. Not until the next morning, when I was aroused from bed by an oddly familiar knocking, did I realize my friend had told me the wrong day. Once again, Chinese New Year had slipped through my fingers.
My third Chinese New Year in Taiwan, I vowed to be victorious. This time, I checked the date through a more reliable source: the Internet. I again prepared my decorations and "lucky" candy bags. I dressed appropriately and stood confidently at my door. Lo and behold, my visitors arrived right on time.
"Gongxi, gongxi!" I cried, thrusting my prepared sweets into their hands while enjoying the looks of surprise my holiday welcome was eliciting.
Principal Mei seemed especially pleased by my enthusiasm. She immediately linked her arm in mine. Side by side, we jubilantly led the group on the annual rounds of the community. At last, I thought, Chinese New Year is mine!
After the photo, it was time to depart. Principal Mei pulled me aside.
"We are so happy you prepared for us this year," she said. "It makes us feel very special, but do you understand the Chinese above your door?"
I gazed up at the holiday banner I'd hurriedly placed the night before. "Gongxi! Gongxi!" I proudly read. "Good fortune in the Year of the Tiger."
"But, Connie," Principal Mei whispered sweetly, "this is the Year of the Rabbit."