Imlek Under the Pandemic Shadow

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Dahlan Iskan
Dahlan Iskan, SOE Minister (2011-14)

IO – In Chinese zodiac (shio), it takes 11 animals to represent personality traits. But even that is not enough. There needs to be the 12th one so that all human nature can be reflected in animals. The 12th one isn’t really an animal; it’s a dragon, a ginormous serpent that, though wingless, can fly. A magical and mighty beast that can breathe fire. 

The dragon completes the 12 Chinese zodiac signs which represent the auspicious order of life in Chinese culture — rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, pig. 

This year is called the year of the tiger. Next year will the year of the rabbit, followed by the year of the dragon. Many Chinese people plan for their children to be born in the year of the dragon, meaning that starting from the end of next year husbands will have to be more “diligent”. 

Actually, dragon doesn’t exclusively belong to the East. The West also knows the fantasy beast, which is depicted with wings. 

In Indonesia, President Gus Dur is a dragon. President Sukarno, President SBY and President Jokowi are all an ox. President Megawati’s sign is a pig, while President B.J. Habibie is a rat. 

For two years running, the Chinese New Year has been enshrouded in a gloomy mood due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But still one must say “Xin Nian Kuai Le” (Happy New Year) or “Gong Xi Fa Cai” (Wish You Happiness and Prosperity). 

Unlike New Year’s Eve, there is no festive celebration on the eve of Chinese New Year. All Chinese families are expected to gather at home: to have a reunion dinner. Before eating, they would pray to the ancestors. The must-have menus are: braised pork in sweet soy sauce, fish, tofu, and noodles. 

On the New Year Day itself, the main activity is the distribution of hong bao (ang pao) or red envelope. It isn’t the envelope that matters, but the content: money. Older relatives would give hong bao to children or nieces/nephews. Grandparents to grandchildren, etc. 

During the day, the young and children would pay a visit to the elder, hoping to get an ang pao. But not for those who are already married. 

They are many unspoken rules around Chinese New Year. Different subgroups have their own beliefs. For example, people of Hokkien ancestry have different beliefs than the ones from Guangdong. Teochew is different from the Hakka. 

Generally, the Chinese people are not allowed to sweep the house, change bed sheet. If it has to be done, they have to weep inward so that the fortune does not get swept away. 

A well-known tradition is praying to ancestors on the eve of the Chinese New Year. That’s why many people stay awake until midnight. 

I myself spent Chinese New Year’s Eve aboard a ferry crossing the Sunda Strait, from Merak to Bakauheni. 

I pondered what had changed among the Chinese community in Indonesia. In the past two or three years, I have never heard a Chinese say “Wo men zai guo nei…”. Guo nei means China. There is awareness that their guo nei is actually Indonesia. 

This wrong habit probably started with their Chinese teacher in the past as their teachers came from China. So, it’s natural that the teacher would say “guo nei”. 

Indeed, I still hope that the people who say “Wo men zhong guo ren” will begin to say “Wo men in ni hua ren”. But this may take longer: the term zhong guo is not only synonymous with China but also zhong hua. 

Real progress can be seen at Ciputra University in Surabaya. Dr. Maksum, a Madurese communication lecturer, told me that in his class the number of Chinese and indigenous students are almost balanced and there is no apparent “barrier” in the interactions among them. 

Maksum said children of Muslim entrepreneurs want their children to become a tycoon like Ciputra so they send their children to study there. On the other hand, said Maksum, who graduated from Airlangga University, many Chinese students are starting to enroll at Islamic economics program at Airlangga University. 

Of course, some barriers are still visible: in housing, schools, and the economy. But still today we say “Xin Nian Kuai Le. Gong Xi Fa Cai!