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Teri Orr: The Year of the Rat leads down a rabbit hole

Teri Orr.
Park Record file photo

This is The Year of the Rat — it is an immutable fact — not just my opinion — it dates back centuries in the Chinese culture. … There are 12 animal characters that rotate every 12 years and they determine the strengths and weaknesses of the year ahead. And the strengths and weaknesses of the people born under these signs.

The Lunar New Year started in a soft way on Jan. 17 (with the Kitchen God Festival or Little New Year — a time to sweep with a clean new broom and sweep away bad luck). The official holiday begins on Jan. 25 (you must not sweep on this day or you will sweep good luck away) and the holiday ends on Feb. 8 — as all good holidays do — with fireworks. It is the time of the Lantern Festival. And during this time — you can now expect to receive lucky red envelopes filled with cash.

I grew up 20 minutes outside of San Francisco and my birthday falls — on the same date of course in the Gregorian calendar but — in different parts of the cycle of Chinese New Year. My oft-divorced, mostly single mother loved controlled adventure — she was a lifelong Republican — so venturing into Chinatown at night was wildly and somehow acceptably exotic. Each year for my birthday we would attend the final nighttime parade with the serpentine dragon carried by dozens of Chinese people through the streets of Chinatown at night. We would sit inside at a window table on the second story of a Chinese restaurant and eat bowls of noodles and drink pots of tea and try to understand the coded messages in our fortune cookies. There were firecrackers and candied ginger and coconut.

This fall I had a magical visit to San Francisco to meet family I never knew I was related to until now — who turn out to be funny and smart and lovers of fine Chinese cuisine. After a perfect morning at the San Francisco MOMA (where we saw the most remarkable exhibit by mysterious photographer JR) they took me to a hip Chinese restaurant owned by a longtime San Francisco Chinese family and we ate family-style dishes cooked at the table right before us. On my last day — before I headed to the airport — I went into Chinatown and sat down for a slow tea ceremony with a lovely woman who didn’t have to work too hard to convince me to buy two pounds of fragrant tea — blueberry oolong and rose bud.

It was just the heads of the animal characters of the zodiac brought to life. It was dizzying to look up and see them all and to meander between the animals.”

In 2012 on a business trip to Washington, D.C., I was fortunate to witness the magical and exotic art from Chinese dissent artist Ai WeiWei. It featured 12 giant bronzes surrounding an outdoor fountain at the Hirshhorn Museum (part of the Smithsonian). It was just the heads of the animal characters of the zodiac brought to life. It was dizzying to look up and see them all and to meander between the animals. I had heard WeiWei speak in 2011 while he was under house arrest in China. He was on a cellphone while he was in a closet in his home and I was in the audience at the annual TED conference where it was broadcast to us. We sat in our seats in the auditorium in Vancouver holding our breath — fearful he might be discovered as he explained his art and his risky brave life.

This week I saw a press release that stated WeiWei would be among the rock star folks from the arts and culture world who would be speaking on a panel during Sundance. The rabbit in me hopped up and down. And I tried to remember what this was “the year of the …” and a song popped into my head, “Year of the Cat.” (Which it is not — of course — it is The Year of the Rat — we have established that fact already). But in the Vietnamese zodiac — The Year of the Cat (not found in the traditional Chinese zodiac) becomes … wait for it … the Year of the Rabbit. My year. So, the fact the popular, haunting Al Stewart song recorded at the iconic Abbey Road studios in 1976 when it was actually the Year of the Rabbit in the Chinese zodiac — which was made the Year of the Cat in the Vietnamese version — seemed somehow cosmically connected or just the kind of midnight connections that happen when sleep evades a wandering mind.

And then I got to thinking about the intersections between Sundance and the Chinese New Year and Ai WeiWei being here and I imagined the parade of my childhood winding down Main Street one night during the film festival. A serpentine, brightly colored dragon and firecrackers and candied ginger tossed out to the crowds that would gather and it seemed like an idea that begs to take wings or get legs or whatever animal euphemism you are comfortable with…

This week about half a cord of beautiful piñon pine firewood arrived on my front porch perfectly stacked in a crisscross manner while I was at work. It was better than a crisp bill in a red envelope. Starting a new year this week makes perfect sense to me — separating it apart from the Christian holidays. I am ready to light some firecrackers and sip fragrant exotic tea and bundle up to stand in a line in the hopes of getting into a panel where the greatest voices shaping arts and culture in the world will appear at the Sundance Film Festival. And this year that festival will start on the eve of the Chinese New Year, which is something to prepare for this Sunday (don’t forget to shop for a new broom) in the Park…

Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.


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