Monday, February 22, 2010

The 15 Days of Lunar New Year

It has been a week since the start of the year of the Tiger (14 Feb).

No, no, the Lunar New Year festival is far from over yet. In fact, we are just about in the middle of it. The celebration will go on until the 15th day.

This festival is celebrated in places where you can find Chinese. Every year, the mood in Chinatown all over the world is lifted during this festival. In the Chinese language, this festival is known as 'nian' (年).

Legend has it that, 'nian' was a mythical beast who would come on the first day of the new year and attack the people and eat little children. It was later found that 'nian' was afraid of things in red and disliked loud noises. Since then, almost everything related to Lunar New Year takes the theme of red and firecrackers are used to create the much-needed loud noise to 'chase the beast away'. The use of firecrackers has been banned in Singapore since the 1970s.

Although Lunar New Year is celebrated in many parts of the world, it is not necessarily a statutory holiday. In Singapore, the first two days of the New Year are always declared as public holidays. However, since the first day of new year this year falls on a Sunday, the third day is also declared as a public holiday.

The Lunar New Year has been celebrated for about 4700 years now. Many parts of its tradition are still being observed but in modified ways. Today, Lunar New Year celebrations are looking slightly differently in different parts of the world. In Singapore, we have our ways too.

Before New Year

Traditionally, families would give their homes a thorough scrub in the weeks just before the new year. This ritual is known as "Spring Cleaning" and with this, it is believed that all the bad luck would have been swept out and good luck would follow.

In Singapore, this is largely observed too but with a modern twist. Given our busy lifestyle, may families would engage professional cleaners to 'sweep away the bad luck' for them.

Eve of New Year

Traditionally, it is important that family members come together on this day for a 'reunion dinner'. Members who are away would make their way home just in time for this symbolic meal. However, daughters who are married are expected to attend the dinner with their husbands.

Singapore is a small country and at any one time, family members are usually not more than an hour away and 'reunion dinner' would often include married daughters as well. It is therefore impractical for married couples to attend two 'reunion dinners' in a night. Given this, 'reunion dinners' could be held over a few days before the start of the new year.

First Day

The first day is traditionally welcomed after the 'reunion dinner'. Members of the family would stay up till midnight (守岁). Little children would also be allowed to stay up late while they await their 'hong bao' (红包) which will be given out by the elders and married couples. 'Hong bao' is a gift of money in red envelopes and is traditionally believed to 'chase away evil spirit'.

In Singapore, not everyone would stay up till midnight. Rather, many would begin their 'new year visits' (拜年) in the morning. Such visits refer to going to houses and send new year greetings in person with some gifts. Visitors are also expected to prepare 'hong bao' which are to be given to unmarried juniors. While not everyone expects expensive gifts, bringing mandarin oranges is a must. These oranges symbolize 'fortune' and they are to be presented in even numbers.

Second Day

It is in the Chinese tradition to expect married daughters to 'belong' to their husbands' families. As such, they are 'allowed to visit their birth parents only on the second day of new year.

This concept is totally alien in Singapore. Over here, married daughters often live near their birth parents so that they get the much needed help and support from them. They visit their birth parents every other day if not daily.

Third and Fourth Days

It is believed that it is inappropriate to visit friends and relatives on these two days. This is to avoid possible argument and bad luck. Some families would traditionally reserve this day for grave visiting instead.

Given that there are only two public holidays in Singapore, the third day of Lunar New Year would typically mean the first working day after rounds of heavy feasting. 'New Year visits' would normally slow down to almost zilch. While at work, co-workers would come together to continue the new year celebration by having elaborate lunches together.

Seventh Day

This day is traditionally known as 'renri' (人日) which means the 'birthday of all mankind'. It is on this day that everyone is a year older. According to beliefs, the first day of the Lunar New Year is the 'birthday' for 'Chicken'. This is followed by 'birthdays' for 'Dog', 'Pig', 'Sheep', "Cow' and 'Horse' on the second day to the sixth day of the new year.

In Singapore, 'renri' is typically celebrated by having a meal which includes raw fish salad known as 'yusheng' (鱼生). It is believed that 'yusheng' is a dish created in Singapore in the 1960s. The salad is eaten by tossing shredded vegetables, sauces and raw fish with chopsticks. While tossing, everyone would cite 'auspicious wishes' aloud. It can get quite messy but it is fun.

Eighth and Ninth Days

The birthday of the Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝), the Taoist ruler of Heaven, is believed to be on the ninth day of new year. The celebration of his birthday would begin with a thanksgiving prayer and an elaborate dinner on the eve. Sugarcane is a must in this celebration and it would be offered during the prayer. It is believed that many generations ago, the Chinese from the Fujian Province
(福建) escaped from their enemies while hiding in a sugarcane plantation. This explains the importance of this celebration for the Fujian people.

This tradition is observed in Singapore, especially for Chinese who have their origin from the Fujian Province.

Tenth to Thirteenth Days

As these days are still part of Lunar New Year festival, any superstition and practice are expected to be observed. Some of the superstitions include staying away from death and the dying, refrain from using foul languages or say anything which suggests bad luck.

In Singapore, life would have resumed normalcy for awhile by now. However, most people are still seen in red clothing and some 'new year visits' would still take place especially in the evenings and over the weekends. Unmarried juniors are often keen to participate in such visits as their 'hong bao' collection will go on until the last day of Lunar New Year.

Fourteen and Fifteenth Days

The fifteenth day is known as 'Yuan Xiao Jie' (元宵节) and it is also known as the 'Lantern Festival'. It is traditionally celebrated by eating rice dumpling known as 'tangyuan' (汤圆) and lighting lanterns to ward off evil spirits. The celebration would often include solving riddles which are placed on the lanterns (猜灯谜).

'Yuan Xiao Jie' is also celebrated in Singapore. However, there are usually no lanterns. 'Lantern Festival' is more commonly known to be another celebration which takes place on the 15th day of the Eighth Lunar Month, also known as the 'Mid-Autumn Festival' (中秋节).

That wraps up the 15 days of Lunar New Year celebration in a traditional way, as well as the 'Uniquely Singapore' way.

Over time, many Chinese traditions would have been modified or lost due to modernization. Whatever it is, so long as modern Chinese continue to observe these traditions in the contemporary way, we can go on having some form of continuity with the past while harmonizing the present with the rest of the people and the world.

May this year be a 'roaring' tiger year to everyone!

“Tradition simply means that we need to end what began well and continue what is worth continuing”
~ Jose Bergamin ~

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Picture Blog #10 : The Amazing Mushrooms

There is a certain unexplainable appeal about mushroom, somehow.

It is hard to describe mushrooms without sounding too scientific but I will try.

According to Wikipedia, "A mushroom is the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus, typically produced above ground on soil or on its food source."

To most people, mushrooms are just food. Some even mistaken them to be vegetables. I hope it is obvious to all that not all mushrooms are edible. In fact, some are so poisonous that they kill. The Death Cap Mushroom (Amanita Phalloides) is said to be one of the most poisonous mushrooms, responsible for most of the fatal mushroom poisoning.

To the people in the East, mushrooms can be precious medicine. Reishi (灵芝) is one such sought after medicinal mushroom (above). Reishi has been used by the Chinese for thousands of years and regarded as the 'divine herb'. It is believed that the first Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) even called it the "Herb of Deathlessness".

Mushrooms are also known as toadstools. Do not be fooled by this juvenile-sounding alternative name - it is often used to describe inedible or poisonous mushrooms.

To the MapleStory enthusiasts, mushrooms are monsters to be killed (above). The maker of this popular online game has gone against the norm by making adorable mushroom characters villains.

To the linguists, "to mushroom" means to expand in a big way or to appear out of no where.

In this picture blog, we will see what 'mushroom' means in the eyes of photographers. Here are 24 stunning examples.


A photograph is usually looked at - seldom looked into."
~Ansel Adams~

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Monday, February 8, 2010

Lifelong Learning - My Way

I shared Ames' story in the last post.

Ames demonstrated what lifelong learning is all about, her way. She lived for 100 years and her learning lived along with her.

What exactly is lifelong learning?

If I may put it simply, lifelong learning is a process of keeping our minds and body engaged, regardless of our age, by actively and voluntarily pursuing knowledge and experience.

Most of us are well-accustomed to classroom learning, thanks to the conventional education system here and everywhere else. Once we are done with structured learning, many of us are not entirely sure how we should carry on with learning.

I have yet to come across someone who would argue with me on the importance of lifelong learning. However, most would lament that it is not easy and many admit that they fail miserably.


The all-time favorite "I have no time" reason (or excuse) would, more often than not, be the cause of failure. So they say.

We live in a very busy world but that does not mean that lifelong learning needs to be disrupted in the midst of our bee-like lifestyle. There are ways to do it and here are some which I have personally found them to be useful:

1. Make a commitment

Lifelong learning is a commitment but it need not be an onerous one.

Enter into a simple contract with yourself. Come to an agreement that you want lifelong learning and that it can be an enjoyable process.

Make it a habit. Make it a priority.

2. Make a "To Learn List"

You are familiar with "To Do List". Now, make a similar one for learning as well.

Do not take the list as a mandate. Otherwise, you are just going to add undue pressure and thus making learning a chore.
The list is just a convenient reference to what you might want to learn from time to time.

Feel free to edit it.

3. Bring a book with you

Carry a reading material with you all the time and you can read whenever you have sometime (instead of spending void time fiddling with your mobile phone).

In this digital age, you can also consider bringing e-books with you in your fanciful gadgets.

What type of books to read? Simple - anything that helps you learn something.

4. Choose your friends

You don't have to ditch your existing friends. All you need to do is to spend more time with those who are intellectual.

Intellectual people have the necessary habits to make learning their way of life. Their habits can be contagious if you go close enough.

5. Be curious

Be curious but not greedily curious.

There are so many things you can learn. Being curious helps but being curious in every other thing at the same time will only distract and confuse you.

Curiosity is the propeller to knowledge acquisition. Have a habit of asking questions on things that got you curious. Find possible answers one way or the other.

6. Think and reflect

You may not realize it but everyday, you are exposed to something new.

Make it a point to think through the ideas you have collected in the day. Journaling and meditating are just some ways to do it.

7. Practice makes perfect

You can read just a few pages of a book and learn much or read a few books and learn nothing.

The difference between the two usually lies with practice. Do consider volunteering yourself for tasks which can let you practise what you are learning. Always apply what you have learned and put it into practice.

8. Be a teacher

As ironical as it may sound, you learn more when you teach.

Teaching requires preparation of facts, crystallization of ideas and examination of assumptions. In doing so, you gather new wisdoms and strengthen existing ones.

Be a mentor to someone or simply share ideas with a friend.

"To teach is to learn twice." ~Joseph Joubert.

9. Refresh your resources

Do you often visit bookmarked websites, browse regular sections of the library or tune to the same few TV channels?

Well, if you do that long enough, you might find yourselves taking in similar information overtime and suffer from 'diminishing return' in learning.

Be adventurous. Refresh your learning resources from time to time. You may discover new areas of learning which will reignite your enthusiasm for lifelong learning.

10. Go back to school

Not literally though.

You can compliment your learning by joining workshops or short courses. You stand to benefit from the power of group learning. Who knows, you might just meet new people whom you can add on to your pool of intellectual friends.

11. Turn your workplace into a classroom

Your job can be stifling if you make it so.

Look beyond your routine and grab every other learning opportunities around your workplace. More often than not, they are just lying around, waiting to be picked up by you.

For the same thing, winners see learning opportunities but others see problems.

12. Learn something from anyone

Everyone knows something.

Very often, we are the ignorant ones who assume that we cannot reap any knowledge from a person. The question I pose is "What can I learn from him?" and not, "Is there anything to learn from him?"

This quote by Galileo Galilei says it all, "I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn't learn something from him."

13. Follow your heart

It is important that you make lifelong learning fun.

Unlike structured learning, no one will tell you what and how you should learn in your lifelong learning. You have to design the learning content and pace. You have to find your own conducive classrooms and inspiring teachers. You define lifelong learning, your way.

If you still think setting hard targets is important, do so but be careful not to become your own killjoy.

Be spontaneous. Be fluid.

14. Take it bite-size

Don't be greedy, you will choke.

Learning in tiny bits does not mean that you are not ambitious. The test is not on how much you put in your mouth. Rather, it is how much you can digest.

Go back to your "To Learn List" (see point 2) and decide what would be the 'flavor of the month'.

Anything in excess will just ooze out of your body.

15. The must-have goal

Setting targets for lifelong learning is good so long as you go easy on it. However, there is just one goal which you cannot afford to miss:

"Learn something everyday for the rest of the days."

16. Learn to celebrate

Let's face it, we need encouragement.

The problem is, we do not always have an encouraging someone next to us whenever we need it most. The solution is simple: Always turn to the person who is with you all the time. This person is none other than YOU!

Focus on your achievement rather than unaccomplished tasks. Learn to recognize your own good deed, no matter how small it may seem.

Celebrate it!

These are some of the things I do to make lifelong learning practical and enjoyable. You can devise your own too.

Remember: Learn everything you can, anytime you can, from anyone you can - there will always come a time when you will be grateful you did.

Happy lifelong learning.

You might also want to read:

You Look But You Don't See?
Listen! It's Been A Year!

"Live as if you were to die tomorrow.
Learn as if you were to live forever."
~Mahatma Gandhi~

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