Time for the New Year

Folklorist Norine Dresser is the author of "Multicultural Manners" (Wiley, 1996). E-mail:

Mike and Jane discover a new restaurant in Chinatown which soon become their favorite Chinese restaurant. The owners, Jim and Diana Leong, treat them as special customers, preparing unusual dishes for these appreciative diners. For Chinese New Year, Mike and Jane want to bring the Leongs a gift of a lovely ceramic wall clock. However, they found out just in time that it was a bad idea.

What did it mean?

For traditional Chinese, a clock is an ominous gift because it is a symbol of death. Each tick brings recipients closer to their own demise. Fortunately, Mike and Jane avoided embarrassment by checking first with an expert on Chinese customs.

Rosa became friends with Ruby, a Chinese classmate who invited Rosa to her 16th birthday celebration. The party was in high gear until Ruby opened Rosa’s gift, a desk clock. Suddenly, festivities chilled as Ruby’s grandparents abruptly left the room. The grandparents interpreted Rosa’s gift as a death wish for Ruby. They wanted their granddaughter to end her friendship with Rosa at once. Stunned, Rosa returned the next day with a different gift, a red blouse in a red box, both positive omens according to the Chinese. Rosa was warmly reinstated.


Now consider culturally aware Reyna, who brought an armful of peach blossom branches to her Vietnamese manicurists on Lunar New Year. They were thrilled because the fruit blossom foretold of sweetness and renewed life. Celebrated by Chinese and Vietnamese, the new year, the Year of the Tiger, began on Wednesday.