China Girl

Happy New Year, everyone!


Yes, that is a photo of me. Yes, it is natural. No, it’s not contagious. Let me explain.

For those who aren’t aware, I’m half-Chinese. I haven’t had a very Chinese up-bringing (though I suppose you wouldn’t call it very Australian either; not many days on the beach or shrimps on the barbie). A big contributor to this, probably, is the fact that I don’t speak Chinese. My dad was determined that I wouldn’t speak English with an accent, so I never learned; and just as well, because it is bloody hard to learn, and nobody ever teaches Cantonese anyway. I like to think that I compensate by doing doubly well at my one language (though I do speak a a tiny bit of German ;)

There are, however, a few ways in which our whole family sometimes chooses to revel in its Chinese-ness. We gobble up the food. When us kids can bully our parents into it, we pull out the mahjong set and play a few rounds (getting Dad to remind us what each of the Chinese numbers on the tiles are. Every. Single. Time.)

I took lessons in wing chun kung fu for five years. I’ve never used what I learned (never been in a fight in my life!) but those lessons, more than anything, were crucial to building up my confidence as a teenager, in so many ways. Learning martial arts put me in touch with my racial identity; took care of my physical well-being; gave me some security as a scrawny-weakling-girl who could now handle herself; and gave me an outlet to vent all my high-school-induced frustrations, without which I would have undoubtedly imploded long before I turned eighteen.

Martial arts also introduced me to lion dance.

Yes, I mean lion dance, not line dance. As in the animal. See image above.

I’ve taken to carrying a photo with me at this time of year, since it is so hard to verbally explain to people what it is. Let me try:

“It’s a lion, but not a realistic one, an imaginary one that is more dragon/unicorn/mardis-gras-float than Simba. It has a paper mache head, which I carry around, opening and closing the mouth and eyes to make it seem life-like. There’s a cloth sequin-covered body which my sister has draped over her, to look like the lion’s back legs, and she has to walk around doubled over for ten minutes at a time. And they hang a lettuce up, and we pretend to eat it and spit it out, and that represents good luck…”

Yeah, just Google it.

It’s a lot of fun, though it’s not without occupational hazards. Since I’m the only one on the team who has trained in martial arts, I am the only designated head. The head costume is heavy, and performances are tiring. We have to put up with irritating audience members, slaps on the back (my sis in the tail cops it the worst) and bratty kids. I always end up with busted hands, because a) the head is heavy, b) its framework is made of sharp-edged cane, and c) operating it involves a repetitive motion that wears constantly on the digits. An artist’s worst nightmare, other than endless sheets of blank paper, is injuring their eyes or hands. I lucked out this year: only one blister, and it healed quickly, so I can already draw again. Good thing I’d worked up a lion-callus.

I’ve been doing lion dance performances at Chinese New Year, every year, for the past 12-13 years (for anyone wondering why there’s a separate Chinese new year, it follows the lunar calendar). It’s the biggest holiday our family celebrates. We’ve done restaurants and clubs, weddings, festivals, private parties – even a few exorcisms. At its most primitive, it is a ritual with a lot of bright colour and noise (drums beating, cymbals clashing) that is supposed to scare away bad spirits. Cue the fire crackers.

This year we read an article in the paper that outlined all the unlucky stuff that you should avoid doing at Chinese New Year. For example, don’t wear white or black; don’t mention the number ‘4’, which sounds like ‘death’; definitely DON’T mention anything to do with death; don’t buy new shoes or umbrellas; don’t give anyone cut flowers; don’t use any blades or knives, scissors, not even a sewing needle. Sounds odd; but if I know anything about Chinese culture, I know that it is very superstitious.

So, this is me at my most Chinese. I probably don’t perform the lion dance the strictly traditional way (no leaping about atop giant columns), but I know how to entertain. It is based on the kung fu that I learned all those years ago, so it connects me to my culture. My dad chaperones us, and I taught my sister how to do it and brought her onto the team, so it brings our family together. And that is the most important thing about this holiday: because a family that comes together, eats together.

Kung hei fat choi, everyone!

Oh, yeah – und Ein glückliches neues Jahr, jederman!