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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyJanuary 29, 2022

Fan tai sui: death and rebirth in the year of the tiger

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

On the cusp of the lunar new year – the year of the water tiger – Naomii Seah reflects on moving into a new phase of life, reconnecting with ancestral wisdom, and omens. 

In the new year, I woke up to a blackbird on my chest. She must have spent the night with me, tucked away in a corner of my room. Or maybe she had simply appeared in the night, morphing out of my dun-coloured furniture. 

My eyes fluttered open, blinking away the vestiges of night-time, and the first thing I saw was her beak, gleaming like a gold nugget in the dust. The blackbird was looking right at me, watching me from her perch between my breasts; her heart next to mine. 

There was a moment of stillness, of absolute silence in the grey-blue dawn. I broke the dream in my next breath. The blackbird fluttered; I sat up; it landed on the covers, and leapt for the windowsill. I cupped one hand around its beating wings, struggling to open my window with the other. In the next moment, it was gone. The sound of blackbirds singing drifted in the wind, and I put the back of my hand to my eyes and forehead. Was it a dream? A small patch of silver-white bird shit confirmed it wasn’t. I left it there, gleaming pearlescent on the dusty carpet. 

The lunar new year is here again. Pandemic years feel like highlight reels of half-snatched conversations, a few nights under the stars, flashing colours, half-memories of wine-drunk dancing with friends. But the lunar new year is here again, and the relentless march of time twirls back around, twisting in and around itself. 

Summer, spring, autumn, winter. History repeats itself. Time is linear and circular and angular. 

In the Chinese tradition, time is parsed into 12-year cycles. In turn, five 12-year cycles make up a larger cycle of 60 years. Five elements, 12 animals.  

For me, a new cycle is beginning. It’s my birth year, the year of the tiger. I’m turning 24. 

According to Chinese superstition, birth years or 本命年 (běn mìng nián) are a time when one 犯太歲 (fàn tài suì). It roughly translates to offending Tai Sui, the god who rules over the fortunes of a particular year in the 60-year zodiac cycle. 

本命年 is traditionally a year of laying low. No big career moves, no moving houses, no big events, no nothing. You’ll want to escape the notice of Tai Sui, lest he turns his evil eye on you. It’s an ominous warning, especially as I’ve just finished university, and I’m moving into my professional life. My lease is also ending, prompting entry into the stressful rat-race that is the Auckland housing hunt. As many of you will know, one’s early 20s are typically a turbulent time, even without the shadow of bad luck.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. 本命年 is also heralded as a time of immense change. It’s a time of transition, of transformation. It’s known as the threshold year. For me it’s the threshold of adulthood. There will be obstacles – hello omicron! – stress, and struggle. But it’s not a reach to imagine there will also be triumph, achievement, new opportunities, and new goals. A new beginning. 

There’s a myth that the human body regenerates every seven to 10 years. The reality is, our bodies are in flux all the time. Cells multiply, divide and die; some fast, some slow. Neurons are never replaced. But it’s true I’m a different person to when I last went through 本命年. 

A friend from intermediate recently reached out via messenger. I hadn’t heard from him since I was 12. I scrolled through our old conversation. 

By the way, your profile pic makes you look like a douche, I told him. CHANGE. IT. RIGHT. NOWn, I demanded. The next message was also from me: You there?

Maybe friendships also move in cycles. I went for a coffee with that friend from intermediate. I’m sorry I was so mean back then, I said. He laughed: don’t worry, it was a different time. 

We talked about our old friends. How back then the world seemed immense, vast beyond imagination. But it was small, too, contained in the basketball court we commandeered after school, whooping and running around; the smell of damp concrete in the air. 

This year, my world is also expanding: from university campuses, academia and study into the wide unknown of the working world. Yet it’s also shrunk immeasurably – only some months ago, the universe was contained in the four walls of my bedroom in Grey Lynn, and the blue glow of my laptop screen. I’m learning that everything is in flux: bodies, worlds, relationships. 

I drove that intermediate friend home from coffee, promising to catch up again soon. It seemed a fitting time to reconnect. 

My dad gave me a talisman in preparation for 本命年. It features a man dancing with a fan raised above his head, prayer beads clutched in the other arm. Floating Chinese characters surround him, and I can read none of them. There was a time when that didn’t bother me. The ages of five to 12 were spent diligently pretending I was a Pākehā kid in an olive wrapper. 

You might not believe in this stuff, my dad said, a defensive note in his voice. But we’re Chinese. I’ve always believed in it. I took the talisman quietly, tucking it into the back of my phone case. 

My dad is used to defending his superstitions to me; I’d always been dismissive of them. But I’ve actually become pretty superstitious recently. Part of it is an effort to reconnect with my parents and my ancestry. After all, where does superstition end, and tradition, religion and folk wisdom begin? 

Recently, I’ve been inundated with what some might call signs. More cynical people, and at times, myself, might dismiss them as basic cognitive pattern recognition. I still don’t know which one to believe. Maybe it’s both. 

For example, I woke up one morning last week with a bright red bite between my eyebrows. I’ve been receiving messages at 11:11, 2:22, 3:33, 4:44 and 5:55. And I’ve spent hours thinking about the blackbird. 

Google told me that the blackbird is an emissary of death. I scrolled through endless badly designed websites, pop-up ads for hot-Kiwi-mums-near-me blaring as I searched for something, anything at all to give the incident meaning. It probably just flew in to eat the bugs that accumulate around my lamp at night-time, I told myself. But there was an itch in the back of my mind. I couldn’t shake the way it had looked at me. How it had quietly settled on my chest. It felt like I’d been claimed. 

In the Chinese tradition death is a rebirth. When my dad told me about 本命年 the pieces clicked into place. I told him about the blackbird too. My dad said my grandfather had loved birds. He recounted catching songbirds with my grandfather in the thick Malaysian jungle as a boy. Your grandparents came to visit you, he told me. 

It’s the beginning of a new year. It’s a rebirth, a renewal, a precipice, a fall, a rise, a cycle. I’m an earth tiger; in 2022, it’s the year of the water tiger. According to the Chinese elemental system, earth absorbs water, and water nourishes the earth. Now I’m no oracle, and I still can’t read whatever signs I’m being sent, if any. But in this case the stars align. This year, I’ll absorb whatever challenges Tai Sui sends. I know they’ll help me grow. 

And in the background, time will continue its endless spin.

Keep going!