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New year in the animal kingdom
January 28, 2009 - Rick Chatenever
Go back through old issues of Maui Scene in their cardboard binders, one year on top of another, and right around now you'll find a Chinese lion dancer on the cover.
It feels like Bill Murray, stuck in a Chinese version of “Groundhog Day.”
When we first started Maui Scene, I was told I would have to give it a year. It would take that long to see the cycles, to get the rhythm, to perceive the pattern.
What I was really being told was that it would take a year to see if the island would let me stay. Any newcomer with fantasies about making Maui home knows what I’m talking about. The choice is only partially ours to make. In the end, Maui decides.
That was 17 Januarys ago. I got to stay.
In the process, I learned those rhythms weren’t quite in sync with the ones I had known on the Mainland. Like starting a new year at the end of January, for example. Or numbering it 4707 instead of 2009.
When it came to the patterns of life here, it helped to look at animals. But they, too, weren’t like the ones I used to know.
This week it’s lions — a breed that bears little resemblance to any who proudly roam real jungles. Carrying on a tradition that goes back centuries, Chinese lion dancers were first conceived by people who had probably never seen actual lions in real life, but had only heard of their mighty powers.
That’s what I was told many years ago by Ben Seng Au. Ben’s a Shaolin martial arts master and director of Au’s Shaolin Arts Society, whose members dance inside the lion suits.
These lions are more like distant relatives of the two-men-in-a-suit “horses” in old vaudeville shows. These lions wear clothes — day-glo wardrobes in shades of pink, orange and chartreuse. They have pinwheel corneas, electric eyeballs, Daisy Duck eyelashes and antennae that would be more at home on a bug or a spaceman. Rather than a king of beasts or a mother of a pride, these lions are bizarre visions you might encounter in a dream after eating combo pizza too late at night.
They appear in shopping malls, schools and Chinese restaurants with their drum-and-cymbal back-up bands, and plenty of firecrackers to add to the frenzy of ringing in a new year. (See Page 7 for more color.)
The peripatetic antics inspire something between fear and curiosity in young children. For everyone older, they bring smiles. The apparent chaos they unleash belies the martial arts discipline and precision of the Shaolin students inside the costumes.
“Feeding” the lions currency stuffed into red envelopes is said to bring good luck for the coming year. That’s according to the fortune-cookie wisdom that prevails during the holiday.
Actually, as lion tamer Ben always reminds us, good fortune is more a state of mind. It’s our choice, whether we want to create it or not.
Chinese new years are named for animals. There are 12 of them, like the zodiac. Each creature comes around every 12 years. This is the year of the Ox.
For what the Ox symbolizes, you’ll have to ask Ben. He always manages to put a positive spin on the critter. Last year, he found the good points of the Rat.
Not until the end of the year does he admit he might have been overly optimistic. Because by then, a new year offers a fresh chance to try again.
Animals inspire the poses of Shaolin martial arts. Actually, animals used to provide many more models for humans. That was when we still had fables, when we lived closer to animals, before they started getting phased out by technology.
I’ve been thinking about animals a lot this week. A visit from relatives gave us an excuse to go whale watching with the Pacific Whale Foundation. Then we went to the Maui Ocean Center for some serious face time with fishes who keep looking more human and wise the longer you stare into their eyes.
In between, I did the Polar Bear Fin Swim — but that’s definitely a weird breed, not a native species in these parts.
On the whale watch, our naturalist included sharks among sea creatures we should start appreciating more. I liked that. Sharks kill or maim far fewer people than drunk drivers do, he pointed out. Thousands fewer. Actually last year, they didn’t kill anyone.
Meanwhile, at the aquarium, I’m always fond of checking in with the jellyfish. They remind me of my own fateful encounter with one years ago.
When visitors talk about dangers from sharks, locals laugh. Now, a Portuguese man-of-war —there’s something to worry about.
There are all kinds of things you can be afraid of out there in the world.
Or not. It’s a brand new year. It’s your choice.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org
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