I never knew that Chicago had a Chinatown until I moved here. It's not as big, or as famous as those in New York or San Francisco, but is a wonderful place. I rushed to my car after church and headed there. Sadly, the parade started at 1:00 pm. so I only made it for the tail end. The good part is that the thing I wanted to see the most (the lion-dancers) didn't end with the parade.
There's a tradition I'm not familiar with that I saw a lot of today. Many business owners will hang a bunch of lettuce, sometimes with oranges, in front of their place of business. One of the lions will come up (there seem to be four lions, each a different color, another tradition I am not familiar with) and "eat" the offering. A moment later it will "spit out" the lettuce, now shredded, and the oranges, now quartered. The lion will also do an elaborate dance which seems to involve a lot of bowing to the business and the customers. I'm guessing it's all about blessing the merchants with prosperity and good luck for the coming year. Since that's the whole focus of the Chinese New Year, it seems like a pretty safe guess.
It's the beginning of the Year of the Ox, and I was born in the Year of the Ox. That's extra good luck for me, if you believe in such things. I hope it works out because 2008 was a stinker as years go (and I've got some friends who I hope a little of my Ox-luck rubs off on too.
My birth year has always seemed kind of appropriate. The ox is supposed to be kind, patient and deliberate. That fits pretty well, plus it works physically too. I stand out in most places, but in Chinatown I'm as conspicuous as an ox in a herd of deer. On the one hand, it was nice during the parade, because I could see things pretty well over everybody's heads. In the crowded, tiny stores, not so much. I stayed on my best behavior, smiling a lot and trying not to knock things over. The motto of Chinatown, repeated in just about every store I visited was:
"Lovely to look at, delightful to hold, but if you break it, consider it sold."
I spent some time looking for a cricket cage as a favor for a friend. There was a time when cricket-fighting was a big deal in China (or so I've read) and the insect gladiators were housed in beautiful little cages of carved wood, bamboo, ivory or jade. Sadly, the few merchants who knew what I was talking about said that they used to carry the cages, but not any longer.
As the crowds faded into the late afternoon I started looking for a place to eat. There's a great, enclosed plaza a block over from the main tourist drag and I headed that way. As one point, when I was about the only person on the street a small, plump grandmotherly woman with her hair in a tightly curled perm stuck her head out of the door of a shop and called me over.
"You want massage?"
I politely declined, and it wasn't until I started walking away that the suspicious part of my brain kicked in. What kind of massage did the little storefront have to offer? Yikes!
Dinner was hot-sour soup and orange chicken. I also sampled a glass of plum wine. It was too sweet, especially with the chicken, but the name has had me curious for a long time. On the way back to the lot I was accosted by two college aged girls who said they were in a bad situation because the friend who was supposed to give them a ride home had stood them up. If I could give them money for train fare, they would mail it back to me as soon as they got home.
I had a little recording go off in my head, my ex-wife scolding me for believing stories like this, and for giving money to total strangers. She's more practical about such things than I am, and was always telling that I was asking for trouble.
I gave the girls $15 and told them there was no need to repay it. I had mixed motives there, if they were on the up and up, the kind act is its own reward. If they were crooks, they don't have my address. I was kind of proud to have combined altruism and paranoia so neatly. :-)
All in all, a great day, and (I hope) an auspicious start for the Year of the Ox.
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