This summer, I traveled with my family to China’s Jiangsu province. One night, we had a soy sauce chicken wrapped in tinfoil for dinner. It looked like a present with a bright red ribbon tied around its center. The plate was china and somehow three times the size of a full sized chicken! Our waitress did the kung-fu hand symbol and then bowed at us, took out a scissor with red blades and handles. Very unique, in my opinion. The waitress said cutting the ribbon would mean good luck and prosperity, and she passed the scissors to me. She looked at me with a look of calm benevolence in her eyes and said: “God bless you, eternal luck and fortune to you.”
The meal reminded me of when my mom makes hot pot chicken at home. She makes it at least once a week, always preparing it early in the day and letting it boil for hours, until the meat is perfectly tender and flavorful. When we sit down to eat, each of us has a little dish for sauce, and after we finish eating the chicken, my mom cautiously carries in a pan of fresh raw vegetables to dump into the pot to soak up all the leftover chicken broth. Tall, white mushrooms, sometimes lettuce, but mostly this Chinese green called bok choy, as well as sweet potato leaves, which sometimes leaves a purple mist on the top of the soup, are dropped in. The vegetables make a sizzling sound that make me feel safe and comforted. We always have plenty of leftovers to last the week.
I never tire of chicken, and sometimes I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact I was born in the year of the rooster. Obviously, a chicken and a rooster are not the same thing, but the rooster is the closest animal a chicken gets to in the Chinese zodiac. Once, I wanted to know more about my animal, so I looked up some of its personality characteristics. I learned that roosters have five main virtues; they are literary, warrior-like, courageous, benevolent, and trustworthy. I think they describe me. In fourth grade, I read 137 books. I usually win ‘Mercy’ when we play that in school (boys and girls included). I don’t know if I’d call myself courageous, but I guess it depends on the situation. This summer, for example, I had to play the violin before thousands of people night after night for several weeks.The first night we played in Chicago, and I was terrified, but eventually I got over it… After that, we traveled all over China, playing in major cities, including Nanjing, which is where I encountered the chicken with the red bow, one night after playing a long concert that left me very hungry.
I’ve read that roosters were especially important in ancient times. They didn’t just serve as farm animals, or food, as we see in the chicken. Roosters were once treasured for their hunting abilities and hunger for pesky insects. Even weirder, I learned, was that people born the year of the rooster will be unlucky in 2017. Apparently, this zodiac year offended the God of Age, and his curse is a stroke of bad luck this year!
All of this sounds particularly odd when I think about the delicious chicken I had a few months ago in Nanjing—this strange combination of good and bad luck possibly headed my way. I only have a few more months until the new year, so I guess I should count my blessings now, but I’ve never taken all of the folklore seriously. I guess I realize that every memory I have of eating chicken, or sharing it at a restaurant or around a holiday, reminds me how each place in the world carries its own traditions. Sometimes I wonder if, as humans, we are programmed to enjoy, or even need, traditions to pass down to future generations. I also like to think about how it isn’t natural to think something like, what do chickens think of us? Instead, we focus on what we know, or want to believe, about chickens!