Teri Orr: The luckiest sign in the (Chinese) zodiac
The paper lanterns, the firecrackers, the heavy food smells — the long, long, long curved-tail dragon, weaving down the narrow crowded city street — at night! The candied ginger and fortune cookies — the fried rice and endless tureen of egg flower soup. Each February, my mother commandeered the window table on the second floor of the tiny restaurant in Chinatown that allowed us to stay inside for most of the parade and then rush out and pick up the trinkets they tossed from the floats. And the night always ended with firecrackers seemingly everywhere in the streets. It was colorful and exotic, not at all like our dull life 20 minutes away in the little train stop town in the Bay Area.
And all things considered it was exotic. My mother had never traveled outside of the state of California at that point in her life and going “into Chinatown” was the most exotic thing she could imagine for us. And though I have been critical of the five-time divorcee who gave birth to me — I now know how limited she was and how being an only child in need of constant attention — she was. Which is a longer way of saying I am kinder to her in death sometimes than I had the capacity to be with her in life.
Because the lunar New Year always falls around the same time as my birthday — this was our annual adventure. It would spread out over hours. Wandering through the tiny crowded colorful stores in the blocks-long village of Chinatown on Grant Avenue that just popped up just steps from the Union Square. It was both the first Chinatown in the United States and the largest. Only recently, with the help of newly discovered relatives through Ancestry.com have I learned that my great great grandfather (on my father’s side) was an Irish beat cop there during the Tong Wars of the late 1880s.
I was allowed one small birthday gift for myself from one of the stores. And each year I would shop with such intention of doing something different, but each year, I bought a new pair of embroidered silk Chinese slippers. Of course, they were very cheap but my mother revered them as if they had come directly from the emperor’s palace. And all year long I would wear them and wear them out.
The sound of the firecrackers both scared and delighted me. The small town Fourth of July parade in the neighboring town (our town in the Bay Area — San Carlos — was too small to have its own parade so we joined with Redwood City) had nothing so exotic. We were still little more than a train stop between San Francisco and San Jose. Rural, really, now that I look back. Lots of eucalyptus trees and horse paths. It would be years before neighboring Woodside would be filled with “horse people” and decades more before it would be filled with Silicon Valley refugees. I joined the local 4-H club instead of the Job’s Daughters thing my family had long been part of. They wore long robes and met in Masonic secret ways and sang “Onward Christian Soldiers.” I cleaned up the sheep pens and rode horses bareback and sang sad folks songs with other young teens.
I don’t know how long those Chinatown birthdays lasted — maybe from ages 6-14? Maybe less. But the fact that my birthday remains tied to the Chinese New Year still feels — after all these years — slightly exotic. I have always known I am a Rabbit in the astrology of the Chinese calendar. I don’t ever have to look that up on some placemat in a restaurant.
When I moved to Park City in March of 1979 my birthday was just behind me — my son’s was days away and I had lots of work ahead to have my kids adapt to a state they had never been in before. I had moved them hundreds of miles away from any relatives or friends. I knew it was the best thing for all of us but they didn’t yet. It would be decades before I felt they were ready to hear the honest reasons we had had to run away.
That first weekend we were in Park City and still unpacking and had already eaten two meals at Red Banjo and one at the Mt Aire Cafe (now Squatter’s) we saw the most wondrous thing. At the only golf course in town — right across from the cafe — on a Saturday morning, there were dozens of people building giant, giant sculptures — out of snow! College-age kids — mostly — who had entire scenes mapped out on elaborate drawings and teams with shovels and pails and things to mold the snow into blocks and shapes — were all at work. It was sunny — that kind of March sun that can come when the temps are still below 40 but the cloudless sky makes it feel warm enough to take off jackets. We wandered between the enormous frozen animal shapes and the giant covered wagons. There must have been 15 or maybe 20 different groups at work.
It was simply the coolest thing we had ever seen. Lake Tahoe didn’t have a snow sculpture contest — I pointed out (the community we had come from). Weren’t we so lucky to have landed in a town that was so much fun! When Clown Day followed weeks later I pulled the kids out of school and we all dressed up like little hobos and saw the craziest skiers EVER. The three guys dressed as gorillas skiing on one pair of skis — is still the stuff of legend. I had no idea and no one wanted to tell me — it wasn’t exactly an ideal family day on the mountain. But since we didn’t know about all the altered humans and their shenanigans we just marveled at all the happy, happy funny-acting clowns and characters. And the mostly naked lady.
Those two “only in Park City” events shaped how my children saw their new hometown. And me too. It was silly fun and open armed and kind. Maybe exotic in a different way for my children. And when I think about all the firecrackers and paper lanterns and other politically incorrect treasures from my youth and I am grateful for another trip around the sun, I am grateful, too, that the fates that landed me here have allowed me to stay here — for all the adventures — each Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the founder of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts. She has been a member of the TED community since 2007 and founded TEDxParkCity in 2009.
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