Enter the Rabbit
Some fragmented thoughts on the departure of the tiger, the arrival of the rabbit, the Lunar New Year, pear and chocolate pudding, and tradition
Thursday, January 19
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Greetings, dear reader.
This week, we’re joining Chinese households all over the world in doing what I haven’t done properly in years: the requisite annual pre-New Year deep cleaning. We washed the filters in our range hood. Vegetables hiding at the back of the refrigerator—so ancient that they can’t be resuscitated even in fried rice—have gone into the compost bin. T shirts that I haven’t worn in years are headed for the local Goodwill. Dust bunnies living and growing under the sofa in my study are being evicted; they are not welcome, even though we are ushering in the Year of the Rabbit.
As we greet the rabbit, we also bid farewell to the tiger. In one legend, the tiger originally didn’t have a place in the Chinese zodiac. Instead, the lion held that spot. But the Jade Emperor grew unsatisfied with the behavior of the lion, which was lording its power over other creatures and acting with cruelty. When the Jade Emperor sought another animal to take on the lion, the tiger rose to the challenge with bravery and valor.
I’m no Jade Emperor, but over the course of the past year, I have grown unsatisfied with the behavior of the tiger. The last couple of months have been especially challenging on the personal front, with some health struggles and some professional transitions. Other humans continue to be devastatingly human. And the world— the world remains a mess. Not great, tiger.
So I’m glad to say hello to the rabbit, a symbol of tenderness, empathy, and peace. According to one ancient folk tale, the Jade Emperor decided to test the animals’ character. He disguised himself as a poor beggar asking for food. The otter brought fish from the river, the monkey plucked fruit from the trees, and the jackal—well, the jackal stole. At first, the rabbit was at a loss. It didn’t know how to harvest anything that this hungry human would really want to eat. So it decided to offer the only other thing it had—its own self. The rabbit leaped into the fire to be cooked so that the beggar could eat.
Before the rabbit could self-roast, though, the Jade Emperor revealed himself and snatched it from the fire. Moved by the rabbit’s above-and-beyond act, he honored the creature by sending it to the moon to live alongside the moon goddess and appointed it a heavenly apothecary. Seems odd that one’s reward for self-sacrifice should be eternal work, but anyway: The rabbit’s main assignment was to produce and to guard the elixir of life.
As my people cycle through the animals, each with its own strengths, I’m reminded of the necessity of all these traits. Perhaps one gift of the Chinese zodiac is that it returns us again and again to diverse yet complementary values, embodied in these creatures of legend. And as I’ve reflected on the many myths that my people have passed down through the centuries, I’m struck by how nearly all of them emphasize relationship: how we treat one another, what we do for each other, how we show up for others.
I suppose it makes sense, then, that my people make a point of gathering for the Lunar New Year. In China, the occasion is officially called the Spring Festival; in 1914, the New Year was renamed when the country switched to the Gregorian calendar. During the holidays, hundreds of millions of people will return to their hometowns in what’s often described as the world’s largest annual human migration. (For a visual take on this yearly event, see “A Tide of Return,” the photojournalist Alex Majoli’s stunning collection of photos and videos, captured in 2016.)
Scattered as we are around the country and the world, it’s rare for my family to celebrate the New Year together in person. Instead, on the first day, when one traditionally pays respects to one’s paternal relatives, I will call my parents and email my paternal aunts and uncles. And on the second day, I will do the same for my elders on my mom’s side.
Some of these relationships haven’t been easy. In my family as in any, we’ve grappled with the messy reality of who we are, not just the fantasy of who we want others to be. But that hard and holy work can produce such good fruit. I think in particular of my favorite aunt on my mom’s side. My sexuality and my marriage aren’t easy for her to understand—she has told me as much—nor do her theological convictions on these matters align with mine. Yet my aunt is also one of the most loyal and generous people I know, and her stubborn care hacks its way even through thickets of disagreement. I’ll never forget the first conversation we had after I married; I had a stopover at the Hong Kong airport, she came to meet me for lunch, and she had just one question about Tristan: “Is he good to you?” Then, when I went to seminary, she was the first in my extended family to offer support, sending money for books. In her example, I see—and I have felt—a gorgeous, hard-won, complicated love.
The Lunar New Year puts these relationships, in all their complexity and in all their beauty, at the forefront. Of course, while there are relatives like my aunt, whom I not only love but also really like and respect, there are also... others. In every family, there are always others. Now, too, I’m invited to reflect on my relationships with them. I bless them however I can manage—maybe sending up a prayer, maybe by not saying the thing I actually want to say. Sometimes love blossoms best with the benefit of distance.
Traditions are not fixed, not immutable. Once upon a time, the habits and practices that are now familiar and beloved were new and different, and somehow, they wove themselves into the rhythms of our lives—or perhaps it’s better to say that we chose to weave them in. So the Lunar New Year reminds me, too, that we have the opportunity to forge our own traditions—to celebrate goodness and love in novel ways.
Tomorrow, for instance, dear friends who are like family will come to our home. We’re doing our New Year’s dinner a day early, because sometimes life is what it is and flexibility is one gift we can offer. The red envelopes are ready for the kids. I’m preparing to put the beef in its marinade—soy, garlic, mirin. A chicken (from the Farminary!) is thawing; it will take a warm bath in soy sauce too. Tomorrow morning, I will go buy a fresh whole fish; I’m hoping the fishmonger will have snapper, but I’ll make do with branzino if that’s what’s available.
In the afternoon, I think we might wrap wonton. In the evening, we will sit together at the table. We will bid farewell to the tiger, though not, I hope, to its courage. We will greet the rabbit, welcoming its spirit of peace and its story of self-sacrifice. We will bring our sorrows from a world that still aches and our fears for whatever might come. Together, we will hold our gratitude too, giving thanks for all that is good, for all that is right, for all that is beautiful.
Together, we will face the coming year, and we will feast.
What I’m Growing: It has always struck me as odd that the Lunar New Year is also called the Spring Festival; it happens in the midst of what is still, in the Northern Hemisphere, winter. The beginning of spring on the Chinese calendar was driven by ancient agriculture. The coldest of winter is said to have passed, and as the sun stays with us longer each day, it’s time to begin preparations for the growing season. I’m actually a bit behind on my seed ordering, but I still haven’t done an inventory of what seeds I saved from last season, nor have I figured out what I’d like to add. Your favorites? What are you planning to plant?
What I’m Cooking: I’m not much of a baker. But we had some friends over for dinner yesterday evening, and I had to figure out something for dessert. Because I had a couple of overripe pears in the refrigerator and because pears are considered unlucky for the beginning of the New Year, I decided to look up a recipe that would use them. Also, I rarely make anything chocolate, even though Tristan loves chocolate very much. So that was that: pears and chocolate. Nigella Lawson, whom I adore in part because she pronounces the word “microwave” mee-cro-wah-vay, has a recipe for pear and chocolate pudding that I thought I’d try. Her recipe uses canned pears, but I substituted my chopped-up, semi-fresh pears, and they worked fine. Also, I was glad to figure out that this is really a pudding in the English sense of the word, not the American, because I rarely enjoy puddings. It’s essentially a chocolate sponge atop some warm pears. Not bad. I think I overbaked the sponge a bit, but nothing a giant dollop of whipped cream won’t fix.
Our Chinese New Year menu will include several traditional dishes that carry special significance—fish, for instance, which symbolizes abundance, and abalone, which represents prosperity. I will cook the chicken whole, because that is meant to reflect both unity and completeness, and I’ll fry up some tofu, cut to look like gold ingots. But I’ll also make some dishes that summon happy memories, including my mom’s egg and tomato. I’ve shared that recipe a few years ago, but here it is again. This is Cantonese comfort food, and it’s perfect on white rice with a side of greens.
Egg and tomato
3-4 medium-size ripe tomatoes, cut to bite size
1/2 T oil
finely chopped green onion or chive
For the sauce (mix all these ingredients together in a small bowl):
2-3 T broth (vegetable or chicken) or water (if you don’t have broth)
1 t cornstarch
1/2 t vinegar (not balsamic)
1 t ketchup
1/2 t soy sauce
1/4 t sugar
Scramble the eggs, seasoning with a little salt and pepper. Set aside.
Using the same pan, heat the oil and sauté the tomatoes over medium heat until the texture is a little mushy. (If the tomatoes are not ripe and no juice comes out, add a splash of broth.)
Add the egg back into the pan, and mix well with the tomatoes. Season again with salt and pepper. Then pour the sauce mixture in and cook until the sauce is slightly thickened. (If it seems too thick, add another splash of broth. If it seems too watery, stir together a teaspoon of broth and a teaspoon of cornstarch and then add that to the pan and cook for another minute or two.)
Sprinkle the green onion or chive over the egg and tomato. Serve over rice.
I’d love to know what new traditions you and yours have created for special occasions and holidays. And if you celebrate the Lunar New Year, are there particular practices or foods or ways of marking it that have become especially cherished by you?
From our home to yours, we send our best wishes for a good Year of the Rabbit. May it bring peace and gentleness, the flourishing of life and the fullness of tender care into your home and your corner of the world.
No, Fozzie did not love wearing the rabbit ears, but I guess it’s just part of the price he has to pay for food and shelter and scratches behind the ears.
That’s all for this week. I’m so glad we can stumble through all this together, and I’ll try to write again soon.
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Thank you for the information and education you share with us. I'm always left with something to contemplate after reading one of your missives.
Ty Jeff for a beautiful article. I always learn something when I read your stories.
I’m starting to think about planting ( indoors) my marigold seeds ( Queen Sophia variety, chosen because they remind me of a beloved granddaughter), harvested from last summer’s backyard crop.