Friday, February 19, 2010

Tiger lady


By TEH SU-CHING

When you’re a Chinese girl born in the year of the Tiger, you have to do a fair bit of roaring and clawing.

I AM a Tiger lady and proud of it. But growing up as a Chinese girl born in the year of the Tiger was challenging, to say the least.

The first time I realised that was at the funeral of my Ah Chor (great-grandmother). She was over 80 and had eight children and countless grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

When it came time for some Taoist rites for Ah Chor, I was ushered upstairs at my granduncle’s house in Macalister Road, Penang. It had something to do with my being a Tiger!

As a kid, I was afraid of the dark and ghosts, and for some reason, robed Taoist priests made my hair stand on end. So there I was, age six, alone upstairs with wooden beams creaking around me and the drone of prayers below.

I was the eldest daughter of the eldest son of the eldest son of Ah Chor. For that reason, she loved me. I have scant memories of her, except that she always wore shiny black pants and starched blue tops with cheongsam-like collars. She also smelt funny from the opium she took every day.

My Ta Por Chor (great-grandfather) owned junks which carried goods between Amoy (the port in Fujian, China) and Penang. On one of the journeys, he brought his family over to Malaysia.

Ta Por Chor was ahead of his time – he got Ah Chor to unbind her feet! But the pain was so unbearable that she had to resort to drugs for the rest of her life.

Funnily enough, it was my traditional grandparents who did away with a lot of the pantang (superstitions) observed by the Chinese.

After grandfather died, my illiterate grandmother insisted that we should celebrate the Chinese New Year that followed. It was against custom, but she said he would be happier if the family came together as he loved merry-making and enjoyed seeing us as a team, with all our noise and energy. I couldn’t agree more.

Many Chinese families don’t think like grandmother. At weddings especially, Tiger babies are not welcome in the marital bedroom, much less allowed to rest their bums on the wedding bed because we man-eating beasts can also devour babies.

But annoyingly undeserved, over-loved Dragon children (boys preferred, naturally) can roll over the red bedsheets and break the red paper wrapped around the enamel potty to retrieve an ang pow, as the bride and her relatives await the groom’s arrival.

I have tried to argue that I was born at 12.15pm, which made me a sleeping Tiger (apparently this clever creature does not hunt in the heat of mid-afternoon) and therefore, not at all garang (fierce). Alas, traditional (I hate this word!) belief dictates that a tiger is a tiger, slumbering or prowling.

I only really felt special as a Tiger when my youngest aunt got married and I was asked to be her maid of honour. My father is the eldest of 10 siblings and his youngest sister is only a decade older than me.

Being dolled up for the wedding was such a treat. I had grown up as a tomboy and did not care to groom myself. I did not wear pink and looked awkward in a dress. (Well, there were awkward teen years.)

My aunt was marrying into a family of Tigers, including the patriarch and matriarch of the clan. So they had no qualms about my being one. I was elated and glowed that day. For once, I had been chosen not in spite of my being a Tiger, but because of that.

In school, the Tiger kids were usually the most rowdy bunch in the canteen, the most territorial on the school field, the most opinionated (think Hobbes of Calvin and Hobbes) in class, and the most dominant in extra-curricular activities. Like Tigger who roamed around 100 Acre Wood, we could never sit still.

I remember how we fought hard to have our very first ever year book. Our vice-principal first said no, but we fought tooth and nail until she relented. The end product was most basic, but it was a labour of love. I remember fondly how everything went without a hitch – from the photography to the layout, to rallying about 300 Form Five students to put it together.

Year books are now an annual thing in Convent Green Lane, Penang, and people have forgotten that it started with Tiger-tastic us.

Despite all the prejudices against the Tiger, it was great growing up as one. I think, generally, our nature is not offensively nasty or in-your-face mean. Tigers are ferocious in the things they seek and the passions they embrace. If a Tiger takes up a cause, it is unlikely that she will be half-hearted about it.

National Geographic did studies and found that in a fight between a Bengal tiger and an African lion, there is a 90% chance that the former will win, mainly because of its intelligent, well-thought-out moves, as opposed to the lion charging blindly. Tigers also have more flexible muscles than lions. But whilst most experts agree that it is the more dominant cat, the latter wins when it comes to courage.

In matters of the heart, I can attest that Tigers are weak; we only summon up courage when cornered and have little or no choice.

I have a tiger claw encased in silver and worn as pendant. It belonged to my mother, who got it from her mum. I used to wear it round my neck to work off evil spirits and make me braver (didn’t work).

I no longer wear the tiger claw, nor did it I give it my daughter. I’d thought of throwing it away but it’s like an heirloom now. I do not condone the killing of tigers for anything, but I will keep this part of the creature, which is a part of me.

Eleven years ago, I toyed with the idea of a Tiger baby. I was 24, but had just married at the end of the year, so it was not meant to be. I thought since I’d done pretty okay, it would be great to show my little girl all the wonderful things about this creature.

Now, I’m into my third Tiger cycle. Should I?

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