As a Filipino-Chinese, I am often asked how I celebrate the Chinese New Year. The only response I have given a few years running now is "Uhm...I don't."
With the impending approach of the said holiday this 2012, I was suddenly in a nostalgic state and tried to remember what transpired every time the Chinese New Year would "commence".
The presence of tikoy was a must, drenched in egg yolk and fried to a crisp. Incense sticks to be lighted and prayed over with incantations I still have no clue about. Mahjong for those so inclined - although my mom strictly forbade us kids from engaging in it as it fell under the general heading of "gambling/game of chance", which she saw no differently from casino games. There would be a "grand game" of "Roll The Dice" - with prizes that were not cheap: I remember there were roundtrips to Europe or Hong Kong and a complete appliance set (refrigerator, oven/gas range, etc.) as top prizes. And the red bags (ang pao/hong pao, depending on whether you used Fookien or Mandarin) filled with money - yes!
Given these activities, you would think that I would at least have a positive experience about it. But looking back, the "traditional" part always left a sickening feeling right smack in my gut. And it's only now, with the advantage of a rear mirror view, that I can articulate why.
We would be "required" to place various trinkets, beads and what-not at strategic places in the house (determined by feng-shui principles) . There would be a certain number of fruits to be put on display, ostensibly for prosperity. There would be items or activities that would be forbidden because they brought "bad luck" and would cause money to "slip away".
And the piece de resistance would be a consultation with a feng-shui master himself, who, using your "animal" according to the Chinese horoscope, would then use that "knowledge" together with "what" year it was, and voila!, he can supposedly predict how bad it will be for your business, or maybe a debilitating illness would strike someone in the family, or, as my aunts and uncles would always hope for, things would be on the up-and-up with the businesses they ran.
Recalling those times, it seemed to me that there would always be some kind of remedy whenever the master would "see" an unfortunate event on the horizon.
I remember that in a friend's house where there was such a Chinese New Year celebration, the master advised the mom of my friend to make a donation to the temple where they both went, and that he would be going weekly to their house to perform some "ritual" to cleanse her of the potential ill that he saw befalling her in his "vision".
One of my aunts would always have a golden fish/pig/dragon/whatever animal was needed as some kind of centerpiece in their living room, then miniature versions would abound around the house, in the car, where their office was, etc.
As I am now "removed" from that world (by choice), the unease that I felt, I realize, was something that can be summed up thus: someone was being conned.
The reason I say this is because, in all these situations, a cash transaction was transpiring, for services with methods and supposedly causal results that, charitably speaking, are dubious to a level of the highest order.
Even back in those days, I know these "masters" were being paid in hundreds of thousands of pesos. (Blame my sharp ears back then.) Added to that, you needed to cross their palms with even more money, to buy some statue, or fountain, or smiling cat, to "ensure" good fortune to flow your way.
This is nothing more than enriching oneself at the expense of others. And why I have always been "funny" about it is because the enrichment comes at a hefty price.
I'm not talking about the cash transaction itself, which is already too much to begin with. I'm talking about the way people are preyed upon - preyed on their hopes, dreams and fears.
Everyone wants to get ahead in this world. Everyone wants to be rich, if only for the sake of their family or children, that they never go hungry. No one wants to get a lingering disease. No one certainly wants to be dirt-poor and sick. Parents want to "be sure" that their daughter is marrying into a well-to-do clan and will not be physically abused.
It is these buttons that these "masters" are pressing, stoking smiles or terror as they "see" fit.
It is no different from a religion that tells you to cough up a "donation" to ensure that your father will be saved from a fiery after-life piece of real estate. Or "leaders" that tell you "for the glory of" (insert deity here), they need to build a building that's almost worth one billion pesos. and little schools in the hundreds of millions.
Greta Christina made this very point at a recent talk she gave: the danger with these "promises" and "predictions" is that none of them could be verified. It's all a matter of trust and faith, which almost always requires you to shut off your mental faculties and "just believe".
Believe that a red trinket in a very intricate pattern will make you a millionaire this year, who cares about working long and hard hours, waking up at 5AM to ensure your business runs smoothly, whipping employees into shape.
Believe that a significant monetary gift will ensure a smooth ride to a "pleasant after-life".
Believe that putting loads into a donation box will return to you tenfold, and not because it is the decent, humanitarian thing to do.
I know many people have a predilection to romanticize these rituals as "cultural heritage", saying things like "well, they're beautiful, and we're used to them, and it doesn't feel like (insert event here) if we don't do X."
Culture. Something I see - our particular culture, that is - as a very large part of what keeps our country from progressing forward. People afraid to "rock the boat" because "it's the way things have always been done", a recipe for mental atrophy and stagnation, and even regression.
Before you write me off as some Gloomy Gus, let me just say that I take the good and just discard the bad: I certainly enjoy having tikoy this time of year. Even though my heart doesn't seem to think it's good for me.