Tiger people are aggressive, courageous, candid, and sensitive,” the placemat informed me. “Look to the Horse or Dog for happiness. Beware of the Monkey.” By the time I saw this, I think, I knew I was a Scorpio — also aggressive, also sensitive under my protective exoskeleton. But now, another mystical way of ordering the world was telling me the basic tenets of who I was — a Tiger person — an act of discovery achieved just by looking down while waiting for my wonton soup.
Regardless of whether you have any Chinese heritage or cultural connections, if you’ve ever eaten at a Chinese-American restaurant, you probably remember something about what your birth year means within the Chinese zodiac. Maybe you’re a noble and chivalrous Boar, or a wise but vain Snake. Or maybe you just remember the red and gold, nearly symmetrical design on top of the placemat. Typically, the mat features a thick red border, and perhaps a wheel in the middle, but there are always drawings of the animals associated with the 12-year cycle, and descriptions of what your year has in store for you. (It’s currently the year of the pig.)
There are multiple histories about how the Chinese zodiac system came to be. The 12 Earthly Branches ordering system — which encompasses understandings of time and astrology — is prevalent in several Asian cultures, and is based on a 12-year cycle that just about lines up with the orbit of Jupiter. The most prevalent accompanying myth describes a race in which animals competed to be the first to reach the Jade Emperor; the Emperor would name one year for each animal in the order they completed the race. Variations of the myth unfurl different ways in which the animals ended up in their final order, with the narratives corresponding to the accompanying “personality traits” of each animal.