A Snake’s Soliloquy

Yoo Young Chun, Head Photo/Art Editor, Features Editor, Features Columnist

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The 12 animals of the lunar cycle in order are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.

As my family waits for our food, I trace my finger in a circle along the animals displayed on a thin sheet of paper used to protect the restaurant’s glass tables from steaming bowls of noodle soup and hot dumplings. Along the wheel of animals are simplified drawings of each animal and even simpler descriptions of the animals’ personalities and what year they correlate with.

My parents are monkeys, since they were both born in 1968. According to the table covering, monkeys are fun, energetic and active. I look up to see my mom half-awake from the long car ride and my dad idly scrolling through the news on his phone. Hmm.

My sister and I are apparently incompatible, since she’s a pig and I’m a snake. Funnily enough, she was born in 1996, the year of the rat. However, since she was born before the actual Lunar New Year began, she was stuck in 1995, the year of the pig. As for me, since I have a summer birthday, I was never in the middle of two animals. I was always, most certainly, the snake: charming, cunning and smart.

When I was 4, my grandmother gifted me a gold necklace, and on it hangs a charm with an engraved snake as a seal of proof of my snake-ness. The other side has my name written in Korean and my old house address as a seal of proof of my Korean-ness. It was also so that if I ever wandered off, I would always be able to be returned back home. I wear the necklace around my neck still, even though I left home a long time ago and haven’t returned since.

The house belongs to another family now, but I only have a few memories of it ever being ours, one of which being the last Lunar New Year our family would spend in Korea.

I remember my mom fumbling with my hair in our bathroom, trying to pin my braid up while I smoothed down the wrinkles of the long skirt of my hanbok. I loved that hanbok. I loved the texture of the soft fabric, and I especially loved its bright and vibrant colors. It made me feel like a princess when I put it on. The moment the dress was slipped on, it was sacred to me.

Today, I can’t even remember what color it is. It sits in a box gathering dust at the top shelf of my closet.

As for me, I’m sitting at a Chinese restaurant run by our Korean family friends, waiting to have a meal with my family, only to go home afterwards and wonder the last time Lunar New Year felt special.

I remember seeing my grandmother’s beaming smile as I bowed down in sebae in front of her and received 10,000 won in return. I can’t remember the last time I saw my grandmother, much less did sebae.

In fact, my dad asked me recently during one of our weekly movie nights if I wanted to bow so I could get allowance from him.

“Why would I do that? I make my own money,” I replied. My dad just scoffed at my extremely American remark and went back to watching the movie.

When I moved away from Korea at 4 years old, I was too young to carry the weight of the culture I was bidding farewell to. Maybe that’s why I left so much of it behind.

When Lunar New Year rolls around, I never feel farther away from a home I don’t remember, and I never feel more ashamed of how much of my own culture I let slip away from my fingers. The only familiarity the Korean language has on my tongue is when I taste the tteokguk my mom makes for my family every Lunar New Year.

I wonder if I’ve lost the right to celebrate a holiday that feels more foreign as time goes by.

As I continue tracing my finger along the wheel of lunar animals, completely lost in thought, the waiter sets down our food. My mom sits up taller in her seat and my dad puts away his phone. The waiter places a large plate on my table mat, covering the wheel of cartoon animals in front of me. Beside me, my sister picks up her chopsticks and places a dumpling on my plate.

I realize now that the bits of culture I’ve lost through distance have always been returned through my family’s warmth and familiarity. From now on, I’ll never waste time thinking about the past and what I’ve left behind.

Instead, I’ll spend my energy wishing health, happiness and fortune upon my family, as that is the true spirit of Lunar New Year.

And with that, the snake joins the happy feast with two monkeys and a pig-rat by its side.

 

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