My working holiday has taken a serious turn for the working. As an indentured servant to the hotel, I am now on my tenth consecutive day of work. Consequently, there has not been much adventure in my life. Yet, unbeknownst to me, Chinese New Year showed up this week and I learned a thing or two about rats, tigers, and blessings.
Naively, I had no idea that all the Malaysians I work with are not Malay. They are essentially of Chinese descent and speak Mandarin. As it was explained to me, they speak Mandarin, learn Malay and English in secondary school, and English is generally spoken in the Universities. As a result, most educated Malaysians speak at least three languages. The Malaysians here in Franz Josef are some of the friendliest people I have met on my trip in New Zealand. They are quick to make friends, show me where they live on Google Earth (often around Kuala Lumpur), exchange phone numbers and Facebook pages, and offer up a place to stay if I ever make it to Malaysia. Mind you, many of these complete information exchanges have happened within the first conversation.
The Malaysians had been preparing decorations all week for the New Years celebration. They laughed when I tried to read the Chinese Characters drawn on long red banners. “Chinese would not like our characters. Not as pretty as theirs.”
I arrived at the party around 11:30pm with Arnaud from France and Felipe from Chile. In the corner of the flat, past the table full of soup and chips, sat a small laptop playing a video of the new years song on repeat, captivating many of the party-goers. We were greeted with cups of sweet red bean soup and a small maroon envelope with a gold Chinese symbol. Inside, we found square cards decorated with the word “Lingerie” and a black and white drawing of something you might find in a Victoria’s Secret catalogue. On the back of the curious card, we were told to write a blessing. Placing the cards back in the envelope and piling them on the floor, we waited for midnight’s approach.
Five – Four – (we shouted in English, probably because I started the countdown) Three – Two – One
Everyone made a mad dash for the envelopes, tearing them open to find their blessing for the year to come. My blessing read, “a lot of love between people.” Not bad, but I wasn’t quite sure what to make of such a blessing on a Lingerie card?
After the party, the blessings were to be put back in the envelopes and placed under our pillows. Once our blessings were read and the author’s found and thanked, it was time for pictures.
So many pictures.
So many cameras.
The next day, when a friend asked me what Chinese New Year was about I said, “pictures. It’s about taking as many pictures as you can with as many people as you can.” We posed for snapshots for a good twenty minutes, holding our blessings and the prepared banners written in “not as pretty” Chinese characters.
After all the pictures were taken and reviewed, my friend Sun handed us all woven red charms to be put on our cell phones for good luck in the new year – The Year of the Tiger. I lamented that I had been born in the Year of the Rat, but to my surprise, everyone agreed that the Rat is an exceptional symbol. The rat, although not my favorite creature and a harborer of death throughout history, is a seen as industrious and clever. To be born in the year of the rat is considered a privilege, as rats are observant, courageous, and enterprising leaders. Rats are also overly curious and restless which may explain a couple of things.
For many, I am the first American they have come across on their working holidays in New Zealand, which I find quite odd. The other day, I overheard my friend Dixon, who had just given me a ride to lunch, telling others “I haven’t met any Americans here.” It is quite odd to me that for such a huge and populous country I consistently find myself as the token example. A man I met from the UK asked, “don’t take offense to this, but most Americans won’t get out into the world. It’s quite an inward thinking place.” He was glad to see that I was viewing the world from a different perspective and, even though he put it in a very snooty British way, I could not have agreed with him more.
Travel is an awkward and inconvenient activity but the rewards of stepping away from the habitual are amazing. One’s perspective is constantly adjusted and ones worldview enriched. For me, the varied landscapes are what awe me, but the people I meet along the way are what keep me going. As my blessing for Chinese New Year read, “may each new journey open your mind to all the beautiful people of the world.” Perhaps, I wrote the blessing for myself.
Happy Year of the Tiger.