Monday, January 31, 2005

Little Red Rooster
While I've felt somewhat smug at dodging the Christmas commercial crush for the last two years, it only takes about a month for my comeuppance in the form of the insanity that is the Chinese New Year. In 2005 February 9 ushers out the Monkey and brings in the Year of the Rooster (or Chicken, or Cock or Cockerell -- depending on who's doing the explaining or translating).
Faded, torn grinning monkey posters are papered over with strutting fowl. The stores are awash in expensive gaudy red and gold gift boxes, red lantern replicas fly from seemingly every street light and eave and a collective switch seems to trip a rogue neuron in the brains of 1.3 billion otherwise mostly rational folks that sends them into a frenzy of orgiastic shopping and, like salmon responding to the primal urge to return to the spawning grounds, traveling en masse to their home towns.
My friend C - who hails from a northeast province thousands of miles from Shenzhen - is no exception.
"I must buy gifts for 21 relatives," she declared matter-of-factly the other day in the same tone of voice that one might declare that they need to brush their teeth.
"Twenty one?" I exclaimed trying to stem the horror I felt imagining such a task, while silently giving thanks for my paucity of kin and wondering what became of China's One Child policy. "Big ones? Small gifts? How are you going to haul 21 presents from one end of China to the other. I mean I know Mao made the Long March and all, but he also had troops hauling his guns."
"Maybe 21 small ones. Or seven large ones for three families," she said. "Do you have any suggestions?"
My mind clambered nimbly as a three-legged dog on horse tranquilizers for quick inspiration. Twenty one pairs of socks? Seven large tubes of Black Man* toothpaste?
"Um, no, not really. I mean, they're your relatives. How would I know? I have enough trouble remembering my own son's birthday, much less figuring out what to get him. I can't imagine long distance shopping for 21 strangers."
"They aren't strangers. They are my relatives."
"Never mind. How about 21 gift certificates to Appleby's?"
"Twenty one apples?"
I could see it was going nowhere, and I had to split quickly for Hong Kong in order to make it to work for my 3pm-midnight shift so I mumbled a fond farewell and fled for the border. Enroute to work, though, I had to hit a grocery for take-out sushi for dinner as well as morning supplies because in China all-night supermarkets are still a pending concept, even in Hong Kong.
Inside at 2:15 pm the Last Minute New Year Consumer Frenzy was in full force. The store was virtually wall-to-wall with diminutive elderly men and women, all gripped with the Rooster Shopping Virus that had transformed them from frail, gentle, loving, patient souls into marauding single-minded zombies imbued with the strength of 100.
While standing in the "10-items-cash only" line, two geriatric thugs attempted to elbow and pry their way past me with what appeared to be at least 16-20 large miscellaneous scarlet and gold gift boxes. While I'd normally give way, especially to elders who don't speak my language, I'd had it. International relations be damned. This was war.
I hip-checked one grandmother who grunted in a very unladylike manner and gave way and then subtly jabbed my elbow into an offending grandfather, whose cargo kalumphed and rattled to the floor.
"Whoops, sorry!" I said in a mock-cheerful tone as I finally stepped up to the cashier counter. "But Happy New Year!"

*A real toothpaste. Once marketed in English in China and Japan under the unfortunate brand name, "Darkie", the label featured a grinning minstrel show-like black man in a top hat. After Colgate bought it Darkie was hastily rebranded as "Darlie" and the logo became a top hatted man of semi-indistinct race (but great teeth!). However, 3 out of 4 Chinese and Chinese dentists still call it "Black Man" (hei ren).
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