“What’s your sign?” Here’s a question we either love or hate to answer. I’ve recently observed that there’s quite a dichotomy between the I-believe-it-more-than-I-should folks and the do-not-ever-say-that-word-to-me folks. Here’s my answer: I’m an ox.
“Do you mean Taurus?”
I can already hear you, you self-proclaimed astrologer-extraordinaire.
No, I mean ox.
Like the Greek-originating zodiacs you are likely familiar with, Chinese zodiacs function in a similar way: 12 signs matched to your happy faces, except with animals standing in for constellations, alternating each year instead of each month. The “year” is determined by the lunisolar calendar; thus, the first day of the new year is not January first, but rather a date that varies from year to year, falling somewhere in January or February. This year, 2021, it’s time for my animal, the ox, to take the stage once again — this time, in the form of the metal or gold ox. Metals signify cleanliness and tidiness, the element gold signifies wealth and good relationships, and the animal ox means strength and determination.
The story goes that in ancient agricultural societies, people often went without eating for days on end; starvation was all but too common. To alleviate these human sufferings, the Jade Emperor sent the ox to earth. But the ox misunderstood and promised more than it was told to, and so it now labors and bears the burden of hard work diligently and without complaint, never slacking. Therefore, the year of the ox is often associated with words such as hard work, duty and discipline.
These are words that do not go with “New Year celebration” in my mind. And so, when I heard that the first day of my new internship was to start on Lunar New Year, I was overwhelmed to the point of distress. Even though one day prior, I wasn’t even aware that the Lunar New Year was right around the corner. Somewhere among my frenzy to find and apply to jobs, I had lost count of the days. The holiday began sneaking up on me unnoticed.
Lunar New Year is a significant holiday for many and considered to be a bright spot on the calendar. For college students, it’s usually surrounded with things such as midterms, essay due dates and the day you have to Venmo roommates after losing the no-boba challenge. Because of this, holidays become this sort of sacred, perfect day, promising freedom from stress, anxiety, pain, grief and work.
Work took up the time I could have spent decorating — sticking a 福 (“luck”) papercutting upside down, planting an orange tree, sending red envelopes and preparing dishes, or at least helping to.
Because I always spent Lunar New Year at school with my friends, I had less time to be bitter and lonely. Being back at home gave me more time to obsess over the contrast between what I expected for a holiday and the reality of the moment. And when the reality dawned on me, it created a feeling of sadness and even loss for time and the warm embrace of fantasy.
On Lunar New Year, I set a hard deadline for myself at night to set my work down and message a few friends. Interestingly enough, even though some visited temples and others ordered an enormous amount of takeout, when I asked what they had been doing all day, surprisingly, the same ones messaged back starting the sentence with “not much” and “the food was actually pretty bad.” I think that goes to show that many of us are facing the same cycle of feeling disappointed after our expectations are not met.
I now realize now how unrealistic my expectations were. Did I really have time to plant an orange tree? Where on earth would I get a potted one, and if I use seeds how long would I have to wait to see one single orange? But I realized I would be equally happy if I simply ate dinner with my family.
And so I rushed to make the most of Lunar New Year’s Eve. I sat around the dinner table with my family, watching CCTV’s New Year’s Gala together. I stopped nyself from scrolling endlessly through Instagram again and from watching too many stories filled with hotpots and Michelin-worthy cuisine, over-the-top outfits and loud, happy celebrations. If you’re a fierce optimist like me, chances are your images of holidays are always picture perfect. But seldom does a day go by that isn’t riddled with a few hiccups. What I had in mind may not have been the way my family celebrated, but what we did was enough for me. School and work are sometimes a part of it and that’s okay, but happiness is generally found in those little heart-warming moments with good people at the end of the day. I was extremely lucky to be able to spend quality time with my family during a time when so many have to be physically distanced. The Lunar New Year is for new beginnings and family togetherness, and I realized that was more than enough for me.
Expectation control can be useful not only during holidays but also dates, reunions, trips, projects and — as I’m sure you’re all too familiar with — test scores. Expectations can hold power over you and cause you to view something as worse than it really is. I have held a skewed view towards so many things for so long, and I still do, leading to frustration when the results don’t match up to my expectations. Here’s to a new year to change that.