Year of the Cat
"If I come to your birthday party, would you tell me how old you are?" I asked innocently.
After I made my grand entrance two hours late, I tried a different route.
"Okay, just tell me which Chinese animal year you were born in."
"Year of the ant," he said.
There was no such year. As we walked to the riverside cafe, one of his female friends said that she wanted to be born in the year of the cat. The closest thing to a cat was a tiger.
"You can't choose which year you want to be born in," I said. "If you were born in the year of the tiger, you must be 42. Do you know why there is no year of the cat?"
The female friend from Oxford overheard my question and wanted to know the story. So I began.
"Once upon a time, the cat and the rat were best of friends. The gods decided to name the years after animals on a first come, first serve basis. So the lazy cat told the rat to wake him up in the morning."
"Well, the rat got a bit greedy. He woke up and left the cat to sleep. Next was the early rising ox. The tiger leapt to number three followed closely by the rabbit. Even the pig managed to get there."
"When the cat woke up, he sensed something was amiss. He raced to the queue only to find it closed at number twelve. Furious at the betrayal, he has been chasing the rat ever since."
I told the birthday boy's friends that I could tell people's age by their animal year. In fact, before I could even speak English, I was able to guess my American teachers' ages. It's a matter of modulo 12.
"I'm a sheep," said the female friend from Isleworth.
"Then you're," I calculated, "forty-nine."
When we arrived at the cafe and ordered our barbeques, I asked the birthday boy again.
"Year of the elephant," he replied.
"There's no such thing!" I exclaimed. Sensing there was no chance that he'd reveal his age, I decided to ask all his friends their animal years and deduce which age bracket he was likely to fall in.
"I was born in the year of the horse," volunteered his half-French half-English friend.
"Then you must be 74."
"I'm flattered. You're absolutely right," he said astonishingly.
In the end I could only guess that he was somewhere between 49 and 74, a rather large confidence interval which could be heavily skewed. But what could you expect from a confirmed bachelor anyway? Youth is a state of mind after all.
16 August 2004 Monday
of being earnestly Chinese, Le Bon Journal newsletter, Volume 2, Issue 2