If you are 12, 24, 36, 48, 60, 72, or about to be born this year you are:
Cheerful, skillful, preceptive, quick on the uptake, talkative, confident, good-looking but defenseless against the opposite sex and apt to prove that love is blind, a good manger of money, a lover of freedom and you will leave (or have left) your parent's home at an early age.
You were born in one of the years of the horse, in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese lunar zodiac. If you would like the happiness possible marriage marry a person born in the year of a sheep (1967, 1955 . . . you get the idea) and stay away from anybody born in the year of rat (1971), with whom you are incompatible.
Of course, the year of the horse has not worked out so well for the Baltimore Colts, the Denver Broncos . . . but the San Antonio Spurs have just recently squeezed a team called the Bullets out of first place in the NBA Central Division - so who can tell?
"It is hard not to believe," says Mrs. Alice Wang of Wang's Grocery (800 7th St. NW). "I do not believe mostly. But when I was little, in China , I remember at New Year's my mother calls out of the house to a fortune teller. They come around the streets then and tell everybody's fortune, write down the year you are born, the month, the day, the time. Four characters. The fortune teller does not look - blind eyes. But he says I will leave home with much help and come to America. And I am here.So I must believe a little."
It's hard to argue with that kind of evidence, and hard to resist stories about Chinese New Year - a festival that seems to be more fun than almost any other, and to be celebrated almost entirely in the family. New Year's itself comes next Tuesday, but the holiday lasts 15 days (from new moon to full moon) and ends Feb. 23, with the Feast of Lights, when all Chinese homes are hung with lanterns. There will be three public celebrations in the Washington area.
This Sunday,the Vietnam Refugee Fund will have an all-day celebration at the Vietnam Community Center in Arlington (site of the old Page Elementary School). From 9:30 on, it will celebrate New Year's (Tet to the Vietnamese) in Buddhist, Catholic and ancestor worship ceremonies. Vietnamese food will be for sale, and a special musical performance will cost $2.
Next Friday night, Feb 10, the Asian and Pacific American Federal Employee Council will have an international New Year's dinner at the Church of the Pilgrims in the District, for $7.50 a person.
In Chinatown itself, there will be a parade that Sunday, Feb. 12, featuring dragon and lion dances, lots of fireworks, music, Chinese folksongs and possibly parts of Chinese operas.
But simply knowing dates and times is not enough - you need to know something about how important New Year's is to Asians. So here, gathered from a number of different interviews, is a kind of basic story:
Every Chinese family - and many families from other parts of Asia - has besides its other religion a household altat dedicated to ancestors and a household god, called the Kitchen God.
Every year he travels to heaven and tells the Emperor of Heaven how the family has been behaving during the year. So of course the family tries to bribe and discredit him. The Kitchen God begins his journey on the date of the last full moon of the year.
The Chinese smear his mouth with a special malt candy - so his lips will stick together, making it hard for him to talk, and all the words that do come out will be sweet. A special meal is made for him. Paper money is burned so he will have a safe journey, fodder burned for his horse. And strong drink is poured over the Kitchen God - in hopes he'll get drunk enough to forget most of the things he has seen, or even if he doesn't get drunk, he will smell so much of alcohol that the Emperor of Heaven will disbelieve him. Then the statue id put away, and the family begins preparing for New Year's.
"But really," says Mrs. wang, "You start to prepare for New Year's back at harvest. There must be lots of food, and many guests. Special sauages for New Year's you steam Rice cakes, very sweet, to fry. Every year you try ro have bigger feast for good lucj. Everybody must clean house. Pay off all debts, because it is bad luck to carry them into the new year. No scissors left out or good luck might get cut. Everybody has new clothes, new shoes, new hats. You have everyone to eat. My husband's aunt on Taiwan owns a construction company. All the workers come with their families. She cooks, nothing else, three days. People come, wish her happy new year, good luck, sit down to eat. They finish, more people come. She has help, but mostly must make it herself. Children - China is not like here, everybody respect older people. Children go to grandparents, kneel down, bow heads to ground, show respect ot them. Grandparents say that is fine, wish them lucky money in red envelops. Not only grnadparents. You go to parents, uncles, older brothers and sisters. There is really much money. And you can buy anything you want with it! Children in China wish for New Year's like American children wish for Christmas."
The Vietnam Refugee Fund celebration will have a representation of the Kitchen God's return to heaven as part of its show. It will be somewhat different from the traditional Chinese way. In Vietnam, the Kitchen God flies not on a horse, but on a carp; he is not made drunk, though he is bribed with good foos. The special Vietnemese food will be different, too. All the Chinese who described New Year's food mentioned sweets. The Vietnamese, who come from a country that has a largely fish diet, said, "Hard to describe food, but one thing is sure . . . more meat."
Both the Tet celebration and the China-town parade will feature the lion dance. The lion is the big multicolored head carried by two men ( one pretends to be the back legs), and he is a symbol of good luck. The other symbol good luck, the dragon, looks (to a Westerner) exactly like the lion - except that he is carried by 40 or 50 men. Chinatown is not sure it has the bodies for the dragon dance, which requires lots and lots of careful practice.
"But we will have the lion, always," says Mrs. Wang. "All stores put together money - we buy insurance for the firecracks that will scare off the evil spirits.The lion of China is two men - one is the head and front feet, the other one in the back. In China with a big red ball, the lion is following that. There is man with fans, very colorful, for the beauty. The lion follows him, too, He stops and dances outside our door and we feed him a vegetable.It should be something green for luck. And the man who is the head, he works the mouth with his arms, eats the vegetable, and an envelop. Because we give him money to come make good luck for our store. All the transportation will be stopped on the street. Many firecracks, everybody happy. You come see."
If you go to Chinatown for New Year's and want to eat in a restaurant you should make reservations in advance. Many have special New Year menus, though they are almost all the Westerner - the Chinese eat at home. In China, restaurants and food stores are closed for a week or so of the New Year.Everyone has all the food they will need.
Wang's (800 7th St. NW) sells Chinese New Year cards, most of them red, with figures of lions, children, men with fans. There are special Chinese sweet rice cakes (one a white cylinder, like an albino cigar, another flaming pink and flat) that you fry oil. Special New Year's sausages steamed with vegetables are also available.
Tuck Cheong's (617 H St. NW) seems to have the largest selection in the area of Chinese liquor (like Mai Tai) and wines. None of these are cheap (they come all the way from mainland China), but the liquors especially are very interesting - if you like very strong drink.
Chinese restaurants will have special feast all during the 15 days (from new moon to full moon) that New Year's is celebrated. The last day, the Festival of the Lights, is in some ways the most important. It's the most important Buddhist festival of the year - in fact, Buddhists like to say that if you never go to temple at all, except on this day; you are better off than if you go everyday and miss this one. In Taiwan, there are competitions with prizes for the most ornate lanterns, and all families hang their houses with them.
One way to make sure that your own visit to a restaurant will be extra special (with all those strange dishes you usually see only on the plates of the Chinese at the next table) is to visit the Vietnam Refugee and Asian Federal Employee Council celebrations.