Stilt-walking girls in brightly embroidered silks, an artist carving a fresh melon into a budding flower and lithe yo-yo pros all vied for attention at the 2012 Lunar New Year event hosted by the Oakland Museum of California. Celebrating the Year of the Dragon, into which I was born more than a half-century ago, I felt drawn to this interactive happening.
The day was all about public participation. One moment I was watching Youngmin Lee, a Korean bojagi artist, delicately unwrap a handmade silk “envelope,” which revealed a letter within. In the 13th century, common folk and emperors alike would use similar cloths to deliver a gift to a friend or cover a Buddhist scripture.
The next moment I found myself imprinting a lungta, a Tibetan prayer flag, over a wooden plank filled with sutras. When making a flag, a person can choose the colored cloth aligned with the element they identify with—blue for sky, white for wind, red for fire, green for water or yellow for earth.
Jamyong Singye explained to us that the flags are made in honor of Losar, the Tibetan New Year. His display explained that over the Himalayas “it is believed the energy of the prayers and sacred mantras on the flags are blown in the wind and will bring joy, happiness, good health and good luck.” As the wind touches the earth, so everything is blessed.
The meaning of several of the traditions touched my heart. The different Asian customs I observed came steeped in generosity and cooperation. Take Japanese mochi making, for example. Several people holding thick, six-foot tall poles stepped in unison around a wooden bucket while pounding the sticky rice into the proper consistency. Drummers and a flutist accompanied them, playing the natural rhythm of the task.
Volunteers, including myself, also tried working the rice with a mallet. Wielding the heavy wooden mallet as if it were an axe, I raised it high and let it drop onto the rice with a thud. Oy vey, that thing was much heavier than it looked. The music slowed way down since I couldn’t keep pace with the previous pounders. Between strikes, the demonstrator moistened the rice with water as if he was dancing to the sound. When the rice was ready, at least eight people ran over to a table, stretching the rice dough into small balls. Two people rolled the balls in soybean powder, sugar and salt. Then the crowd got to try them. Although the mochi is a bit dry for my taste, taking part in this ancient new year tradition was quite fulfilling.
Then came a performance by 24 high school boys from the Developing Virtue Secondary School, a Buddhist institution in Ukiah. They played Malaysian drums out on the museum’s courtyard steps. The number of players represents the 24 seasons in Chinese agriculture. Rows of young musicians coordinating their sticks and moves to yield crisp composed rhythms reminded me of the precision of martial arts.
The brightest moment for me was meeting two young women named Lily and Rose (my grandmother’s name). As they raised money for the school by selling T-shirts emblazoned with blessings and a golden dragon, their warm spirits emanated generosity. This was the energy that permeated everything throughout the day. Happy Lunar New Year!