Thinking outside the OX

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By Anthony Deyal

Like most West Indians, I’ve had many nicknames throughout my life, one in particular that I always remember after we welcome in the New Year. The year 2021 is completely different from those early days when on Old Year’s Night my father shot off his “16 gauge” Stevens shotgun and gave me a chance, or what we called a “toosh”, to take a shot in the air.

The recoil threw me flat on my bottom to the laughter of all and left me begging for another chance which I never got because my mother interfered, “You want him to fall on his head?” Later on, when I reached man’s estate and was married, we used to go to an “Old Year’s Night Fete” where we danced and drank through the Auld Lang Syne until the new dawn broke at an oil company’s club located in a place called Forest Reserve, my mother’s birthplace. I found the coincidence worth a drink or two (or even three or four) since my friend Orland Bhola was driving and our friend Clifton John was the host.

My nickname then was the one that is reserved for, and by, the people of Siparia, the town in the deep south of Trinidad in which I spent my best years. I am not sure what it means or why my parents called me “Shunun” but it has stuck. Before Siparia, as a little boy in Carapichaima, a village in Central Trinidad, the sugar-cane heart of the country, I was known as “Beebop” because I was never without a cap, in those days named after the “bop” dance craze, and dubbed a “beebop”. Other youngsters had a bee in their bonnets, I had a beebop.

At Presentation College, San Fernando, the high-school at which I spent six years of my life, I was labelled “Cokes” because of a “cokey/roving eye” or “uniocular vision” problem I still have. Then, when he had no choice but to acknowledge my leadership in the Sixth-Form, the Principal, Irishman Brother Jerome Kelly, made me a College Prefect. Since he loved to beat or “cane” students, Prefects were given a “billet” book in which we wrote down the names of the wrong-doers and the crimes they committed for the principal to cane the heck out of them. I got the nickname, much deserved, of “Billet The Kid”.

Then came the one that I still hear occasionally from my UWI colleagues, “Poet”. I entered Canada Hall in the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, at the start of the 1969-1970 school year and the night “grubbing” or initiation started, when a new student like me was a “grub” or a cross between a worm and a piece of rock or dirt, a dialect poem I had written was on the government Radio’s nightly show. I got $15 for my piece and because several of the boys heard it I became, “Poet”, the Trini chairman of Canada Hall during the Black Power events in 1970.

The nickname that comes back to me just as we head into February every year, is one I earned when, at sixteen, I was paid to teach English to the three older children of a Chinese family that owned a Rum Shop and Supermarket in a village called “Quarry Village” which is just a few miles west of where we lived. My father was a truck driver and spent a lot of time and all his money in the rum shop. Under the influence, he may have boasted about my academic prowess, especially my English Language grade in the Senior Cambridge Examination (now replaced in the region by the CXC) and so, at 16, I got my first part-time job. Wah Fai, my employer, also ran a “whe-whe” (termed “drop pan”, “cashpot” and even “Play Whe” in Jamaica) betting “turf” by the river behind the village.

Occasionally, on my way out, when the owner was gambling, I sometimes helped out in the shop. One day, a noisy drunk wanting to buy a “PQ” or “petit quart” (half of a “nip” or one-eight of a quart) of strong rum, looked at me with my bit of Irish-light skin and called out, “Chin!” (the nickname given to every Chinese man or boy in Trinidad at that time). Not thinking he was speaking to me, I ignored him. He then shouted loudly, “Chin! Chin! Bring your Chinee mother so-and-so over here when I talking to you before I mash up your Chinee chinkey eye!” I wanted to tell him that my mother was a seamstress so she was not a so-and-so but a sew-and-sew. However, even though I was angry, I kept my chin up and ignored all the insults. It is something that Chinese grew up doing and I understood then how much it hurts and what it takes not to retaliate.

What also stuck, so deeply that it grew considerably during the years, was my love for the Chinese people and their culture. It is easy in the Caribbean, not knowing the society and its achievements, to treat them with complete disrespect. I learnt not to. Over the years I read widely about their thousands of years of achievements, discoveries and inventions that were much later “reinvented” by the Europeans. I had Chinese friends in every class and school I went to. I made an effort not to fall into the habit of making fun of their names or speech and to befriend them whenever I could or felt the need to.

As I grew up, I realised that culture is different from wealth or economic standing. There is no underdeveloped or “Third-World” culture. All cultures are equal and each has its attractions and beliefs that are different from ours which, for me, is what makes all cultures, including the Trinidad or Caribbean culture, so very interesting.

Annually, even though I welcome in our New Year with my family, I am also interested in the Chinese New Year which will be celebrated next week Friday, February 12. It is the Year of the Ox and, even though in the 12 animals of the Chinese calendar, I am a Rooster and might be talking pure cock, I am not cowed by it at all. What helps is my younger daughter, Jasmine, is an Ox. According to one Chinese source, “The ‘Rooster-Ox compatibility’ is absolutely excellent. Both are systematic and meticulous. Both of them will enjoy things that simulate their intelligence. They are both capable and tend to be detail-oriented.” Another says, “The Rooster and the Ox are one of three compatible pairs called San He.

In the Year of the Ox then, the Rooster will be blessed with opportunity and fortune. This will be an excellent year for you to achieve your goals in both your professional and personal life. With luck on your side, no one will be able to stop you from turning your dreams into reality.” Every Chinese year, except in your own animal year, the relationships seem fantastic. Even with the Rat, Sheep, Snake or even Dragon, you have some mutual respect and support.

However, your birth year is always the worst. What I do know is when I realise on any day that being a Rooster may not be my best option, I quickly go back to being a Leo. I do a quick search through the newspapers I read from Trinidad, Barbados and Jamaica especially and whichever says I am going to have a great day or make a lot of money, that is my choice. Those that mention the beautiful women I’m going to meet, especially those who would fall in mad, passionate love with me, even though they make my day, I hide very far from my wife Indranie. I won’t need any horoscope, Ox or Lion, to tell me the outcome. This is actually one time you have to think outside the Ox.

*Tony Deyal was last seen chopping up some leftover dumplings from his soup. It was an act of wanton destruction.

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