I was born in the Year of the Rat. I'm reminded of this because February 1 is Chinese New Year (ushering in the Year of the Goat). For most Americans, other than ordering take-out, watching images of the colorful and loud parades in the nation's various "Chinatowns" is probably the extent of their contact with anything remotely Chinese.
I've never been ashamed of having a much-maligned rodent represent my year of birth. Contrary to public opinion, the rat is a remarkable creature. Here's a little something I dug up on the web:
"The Norway rat is the only animal other than man which has been scientifically proven to both laugh and dream. No doubt many other animals do laugh, or dream, but only the Norway rat has been proven to. Norway rats' cries are mainly ultrasonic, too high for most humans to hear, but with suitable electronic equipment young rats can be heard giggling as they wrestle and play - a sort of staccato, clicking "Eh eh eh". And in a study published in January 2001, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported that they had monitored the brainwaves of rats while solving a maze, and while sleeping afterwards, and found that the rats seemed to be running the maze again in their sleep."
The rat isn't the only one suffering from a bum rap. The Chinese provided much of the labor behind America's brutal westward expansion and were rewarded with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which read in part:
"Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or, having so come after the expiration of said ninety days, to remain within the United States."
There's so much about rats to learn and appreciate:
* Rats have no gallbladder. They cannot burp or vomit
* Rats don't have paws; they have hands and feet...the have glands on the bottom of their feet, so they leave a wet scent trail wherever they walk.
* A rat's incisors never stop growing. Therefore, they must gnaw.
* A rat's heart beats 260-600 times in one minute.
* A pair of rats can produce 15,000 babies in one year.
* Rats begin breeding as young as 5 weeks of age. Gestation lasts 21 to 24
days, and females can produce up to seven litters a year, each containing
six to 22 young.
* Rats use their tails for many functions - balance, temperature control and
communication. It's important to note that you should never handle a rat by
its tail. The skin is very sensitive and can cause great distress and even
death to a rat.
* Rats have highly developed senses, and their ability to climb, jump, burrow
and gnaw gains them entry to places inaccessible to many other small mammals.
* Rat packs can include up to 60 individuals (not counting Sinatra).
* History books often associate the Black Death with rats but it was the fleas living on the rats that were responsible for spreading the virus.
* In 1996, New Yorkers reported 184 rat bites...and 1,102 human bites.
Can there be a new, more agreeable image of China? According to Xi Kiaohe, a reporter for the China Sports Weekly, there already is, thanks to Yao Ming, the 7' 5" Chinese basketball player now playing for the Houston Rockets. "People thought of Chinese people as short and skinny, not fierce, unable to play competitive sports. Yao has shown that it is wrong." Being a long time martial artist, these words felt like déjà vu all over again. When Bruce Lee, in the 1972 film Chinese Connection, waded through a Japanese karate school in an orgy of revenge, he made certain to remind his vanquished foes: "We are not sick men." The film set box office records in Hong Kong. Fierce enough for ya?
Somehow, the word "rat" has become synonymous with betrayal. Maybe human disdain for this animal is envy-based. They can do so many things we can't:
* A rat can fit through an opening that is just one half inch wide.
* Rats can breath under water for two minutes.
* A rat can swim for three days before it drowns.
* A rat can chew through concrete.
* In a college experiment rats were pitted against college students to learn their way through a maze. The rats learned three times faster than the students
Actually, there's another way we Americans encounter Chinese life and that's the ubiquitous "Made in China" label. Practically everything we buy these days is produced by sweatshop labor, prison labor, child labor, or slave labor provided by the People's Republic of China. In a telling illustration of American capitalist evolution, the largest US employer was once General Motors (GM is now the largest employer in Mexico). Then it was Manpower, Inc., a temp agency. Today, it's Wal-Mart, a company owned by one of America's richest families...a company where 50% of its employees are eligible for food stamps...a company with over 900 factories in th People's Republic of China. Despite (or because of) all those sweatshops in China, many in America's working class opposed China's entry into the World Trade Organization. The AFL-CIO declared: "No blank check for China." Mike Dolan of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch told the Wall St. Journal: "China, we're coming atcha. There is no question about it. The next issue is China." Workers were pitted against one another while transnational corporations profited.
It's fascinating to behold how particular animals never seem to be accepted. Like the dog, the rat has taken the first step toward domestication: initiating contact with humans. Unlike the dog, rats are despised and exterminated.
Good luck, Goat...
Mickey Z. is the author of The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet (www.murderingofmyyears.com) and an editor at Wide Angle (www.wideangleny.com). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.