Origin Stories in a Modern World by Valerie Zhang
Growing up in a Chinese American family, I’ve never truly fit in entirely with one culture. Dumplings at Thanksgiving dinner, football during Chinese New Year; many of my family’s traditions show the syncretic nature of American life. However, the versatility of the American life means that the narratives and stories important to me come from long-established Chinese tales, in particular the origin story of the Chinese Zodiac.
The purpose of origin stories are not just to entertain — such stories serve as an explanation for an event. The story of the Chinese Zodiac is perhaps the core of Chinese New Year. The story, which tells of the race of twelve animals across the river, explains the order of the animals. (The rat, having hitched on ride on his ox friend, made it across the river first and thus was given the first year.)
The story transcends time and continues to stay relevant. One of my earliest memories involves my being told I was born in the year of the rabbit. My grandparents told me the animals of my relatives, not their actual age, as it is believed the years represented by the animals affect the character of people. In telling me my cousin was a boar, As a rabbit, I am often told, I am gentle and compassionate, yet sometimes lack what it takes to face reality.
Each animal has weaknesses, as well as strengths. While the strengths may flatter a listener, it is the weaknesses that lend the story plausibility and depth. The story of the Chinese zodiac does not merely speak of animals; it exemplifies both desirable and unpleasant human qualities and shows the richness of Chinese culture.