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Yet Another New Year's Day 2568
On Saturday evening, wife, mother-in-law and I went on a shopping excursion to Pacific Place, which is a highly over-rated and overpriced mall in downtown Jakarta. I had one goal in mind, though: hit Kemcik Grocery Store. This is about the only place in Jakarta to get many of the food items that I once took for granted. For example, I bought, for only the second time in nine years, some Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing. Yes, folks, that is a gourmet item here, and I paid $7/bottle for the privilege. I think it's worth it for the rare treat. I also had to indulge in Peter Pan Peanut Butter, fresh dill and sage (to hold my over till my next crop comes in), and a couple of wedges of fine Brie cheese (French not Australian).
Mostly the outing was part of the New Year tradition of new experiences. My mother-in-law, being a little old lady from a small town in north-central Java, has never seen so many bizarre things, like a fine wine shop and Smucker's jelly (though they didn't have my grape).
We capped off the evening with another rare experience: the Hard Rock Cafe. Neither my wife nor mother-in-law had ever been there, and it was my third trip in nine years. We gorged on smoked ribs and chicken, and a massive plate of beef nachos, which mum loved because of the jalepeños.
It's all part of the preparation and tradition of Chinese New Year. Later today (Sunday) I have to get a hair cut (next to my favorite shwarma joint) and trim my nails, and probably buy new underwear. The tradition is everything must be renewed before the turning, so new clothes, cutting old hair and nails, house-cleaning, etc., is all part of the deal.
This year is symbolized by the Shadowy Red Hot Cock, or Yin Red Fire Rooster if you prefer more traditional notation. It is said that this year will be one of "new beginnings" and "awakenings." Just speculating here, but it seems that we are off to just such a start, even though the year officially begins on 28 January 2017, at roughly 0800 GMT, or slightly West of Jakarta.
The Chinese have one major weakness - they are highly superstitious. If you are doing business with Chinese individuals or companies, you would do well to consult Chinese astrology for the date and time of meetings, and maybe even the birthday of the lead negotiator. It could give you an edge knowing whether they will or won't sign contracts, or if they will be passive or aggressive at the table. Chances are that the folks on the other side of the table have done the same and will act/react accordingly.
So anyway, there are a number of pork festivals occurring around the country to celebrate New Year. Pork, or course, is a Chinese passion, even more so than dog. In a predominantly Islamic country, you can imagine all the whining and complaining going on, even though this ritual has gone on for centuries - even before Islamic raiders overran the islands, bringing their religion with them. I, for one, don't wait for a particular time of year. I celebrate pork every single time I can find it.
Hell,the Pork Festival, which sounds vaguely suggestive, changed its name to the Imlek Culinary Festival because after centuries of the same annual ritual, the Muslims decided to get sensitive this year. I guess they forgot that Islam is an invader too.
So, the malls are festooned with red archways, banners and lanterns. It is especially fortuitous that this year is the Red Cock, since the color red symbolizes luck and prosperity, and is the traditional color of the New Year.
The 28th of January being the official beginning of the lunar year means that the relatives will bundle up the young 'uns and go to the houses of all the other relatives so the children can beg for Angpao. After clasping their hands together and wishing everyone Gong Xi Fa' Cai (恭喜發財), the adults hand them small red packets stuffed with crispy fresh bills. Note the bills have to be crispy and new. You can't get rid of your old soggy bills this way. This means my wife will have to run to the bank this week to obtain a stack or two of brand-new, hot-off-the-presses 2,000 and 5,000 notes, and then we will spend an evening stuffing envelopes.
One rule - the kids can't look in the envelopes until they get home so there won't be any complaining about amounts. If I wanted to, I could exchange some of my old soggy notes for fresh crispy ones and no one would know who did it, but my wife would never let me get away with it. Even though the packets are anonymous, she is just sure everyone would suspect me. Can't imagine why.
Everyone also prays fervently for rain on New Year's Day, as that is an omen of good luck and fortune for the coming year. So far, in the nine years I've been here, it never fails to rain, though I have yet to receive the empire I so richly deserve - still waiting on the fortune part, but can't argue with the luck.
Oh, I almost forgot all the lion and dragon dancers. These are elaborately costumed dancers who go around in both the malls and neighborhoods (though the mall costumes are in better shape) and beg for handouts - traditionally an orange or two shoved in the mouth of the creature. This dance is accompanied by lots of clashing cymbals and clanging chimes to ward off the evil and mischievous spirits. The noise certainly makes me run away.
It's a fun and interesting time of year, and is one of the four New Year's Days celebrated in these parts - Roman, Muslim, Hindu and Chinese. The Hindu version comes at the end of March this year, while the Muslim version is celebrated a month after Ramadhan. Take the days off whenever you can get them, I always say. In fact, we are going to Bali the weekend before Hindu New Year to soak up some of that culture, too. It's not quite as fun as the others, though it has some interesting public displays which we will get to in due time.
Enough for now. I am worn out shifting around the house avoiding the Cleaning Brigade. All part of Life on the Far Side here, deep in the jungles of Borneo. Here's hoping it rains on your parade!
Gong Xi Fa Cai!