My birthday, perched on the opening edge of Leo season, has come and gone, and in its aftermath and the gentle cooling of the season I’ve found myself marveling at not just this recent nexus of my own astrological signs (Eastern Monkey, Western Leo), but also a haunting and hypothetical one: If I’d had my daughter, she would’ve been a cusp child, caught between not just Aquarius and Pisces, but also Horse and Goat. Every birth date is a product of astral ordinance and sheer luck; you can try to predict and plan it, but chance will generally tip the scales toward one Western Zodiac sign or another. It’s another thing to be born between lunar years, those ruled over by the Eastern Zodiac: Your non-calendar birth year is almost always known ahead of time unless you’re to be born in the liminal space between late January and mid-February. Though my abortion took place years ago, I find it fascinating that my first child would’ve been born on the edge, one that so cleanly illustrates my own preoccupation with astrological fate.
More and more people these days seem to follow their astrological sign, to which they ascribe their personal triumphs and, more often, failures. The discourse around the Eastern Zodiac on the Western web is quiet and non-institutionalized, usually lumped in with general “Asian interest” sites and parsed with all of the grace of a paper Chinese diner placemat—which is, incidentally, the form in which I most often encounter the twelve Eastern shēng xiào, the divine signs, here in the States: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig; twelve meets twelve, imperfect but parallel. Astrology’s appeal is that it lets you scry, form outlines around your life and your identity in ways that point to the things you might already know about yourself but sometimes find embarrassing to name: “I’m caring to the point of being overwhelming” condenses to “I’m a Cancer”; your penchant for stubbornness whittles to “I’m an Ox.”
But while the guiding principles of each Zodiac are the same—boiling down the multitude of broad human characteristics into twelve similarly broad categories—their scopes are not. Western astrology is the bullet journal of your life, almost a science that can be tracked to the minute (though technically overwritten by an actual evolving scientific field ). You need your birthplace and time of birth to create a star chart, a process that seems as mathematically elaborate as higher-order functions. The Eastern Zodiac, on the other hand, is often scried in the macro: Tethered to years instead, linked to the moon instead of the stars, it provides broad sweeps of prophecy, less concerned with your day-to-day existence and more with the overall arc of your life.
The Eastern Zodiac has been referenced in Western pop culture, but I encounter it most within my own family. It is still the easiest way for me to identify my parents’ ages; for several years, I kept forgetting the exact date of my mother’s birth, but I will never forget her Zodiac year. She is a Horse and a Cancer. My father is a Pig, which fits his temperamental and hearty personality better than his Aquarius sign; my sister is both a Dog and a Taurus, which perhaps explains her intensely loyal and protective nature. I don’t think my parents have ever checked their Western horoscopes, but they hoard Eastern charms: a crystal set of my family’s signs; my mother’s jade horse pendant, always visible around her neck. My family’s collective interest in the Eastern Zodiac is the one area of mysticism we can all agree on.
During my downward slide into adulthood, Leo and Monkey traits have dovetailed to destine me for risk-taking and dramatics. This has, mostly unintentionally, been a point of anguish between me and my parents: Just as I’d secured the stable full-time job that made them stop hounding me about grad school and my nebulous “plans,” the tectonic plates of my life began to creak and crash against each other once more. My mother had warned me that one’s Zodiac year is, contrary to what I once believed, supposed to bring bad luck. Though I kept my good luck red on me at all times—a tight red string necklace with a golden monkey charm, a gift from my paternal grandmother—I found myself in a deep, depressive hole at the beginning of the new lunar year: unemployed (by choice), scavenging for part-time gigs, moving apartments. At the time I thought, and still think often, about where my parents were at my age: a few years into their time in the States, a young researcher and a student finishing up her PhD, meeting and laying down the tracks of their lives thoughtfully and meticulously.
It feels even more wrong to “fail,” to not chase the things I know they value for themselves and for me, in the shadow of their own past twenty-something lives. So I don’t tell them. Our small talk is circular, all three of us seemingly understanding that to push beneath the surface of our conversations would only serve to depress me and disappoint them. So my parents, left out of the loop, still don’t know that I’ve weathered anything at all, and probably wouldn’t have helped even if they’d known. It is the cruel paradox of our parent-child bond: The love, mine and theirs, is ever-present and strong, but it is also a tether perpetually pulled taut.
They think (and voice, often) that my life lacks direction, and I’m not inclined to give them more evidence, even (especially) if it’s true. So, for months, I buried myself in my fears and my struggles, my sadness and my work, isolated from my family and clinging to the moon and the stars—the ones we all see, and the ones that glowed, faint but not fading, in me. Eventually, things started to stabilize, and that this settling all happened around the time Leo season started seems a suspicious coincidence. I know that objectively, most of these changes can be attributed to the fact that I am young, living in flux, but how tempting it is to place some belief in the movement of celestial bodies pulling at the puppets of fate with exacting, gossamer-gleaming wires. The alternative is simply to believe that sometimes we’re happy and traditionally productive, sometimes we’re not, and we shape our lives according to the intangible sands of time shifting beneath our feet. Where’s the fun in that?
My flirtation with Western astrology is a way for me to consciously map out my mad scramble toward independence, but it’s the Eastern-born pull that I feel more acutely; my parents’, especially my mother’s, expectations and questions about my future haunt my waking and even sleeping moments, pressing me to project what’s ahead. My mother had me when she was twenty-six, a number that looms just two years away for me. When we talk, she lingers not on my friendships or work dramas, but on the man who’s been my partner for almost three years now. The last time she visited me, she said, offhandedly, “He’ll make a good head of the household!” which prompted me to retort, “He can butt heads with me.” But even saying that in jest ties a knot in my gut, connotes a certainty that I both welcome and am wary of. I am already familiar with sudden and debilitating nausea, the kind of tiredness and sickness that wrings you out. Sometimes I wonder what my mother might have done in a world without me. I am grateful to be hers, and I want my own children to feel the same way about me when they come. If they come.
When my mother asks about plans for my own family, I don’t have the heart to tell her that, in another life, it’s already begun. Nor can I explain to her that it could be a Monkey year again before I have all, if any, of the answers to the questions she posits every time we talk: What do you want to do? Where do you see yourself in the future? How are you going to get there? I can delay and defer these conversations with her, but they squirm just under the flow of my more pressing thoughts, like phosphorescent plankton rippling and winking under moonlit waves. There’s no way to measure my life according to metrics I can’t even fathom yet.
So I try and divine whatever destinies I can now; glimpse a vision of a future that might not come true, but can at least guide me closer to a truth. The surety that both Zodiacs try to provide—in your work life, your love life, your health, your fortunes—is that things may get rough, but they will eventually be better. They forecast happiness just beyond the horizon and we chase that happiness, because otherwise the passage of time is just an elastic band snapping you awake to a reality you don’t always want to confront. What I mean to say is: I believe in the Western Zodiac because sometimes it’s hard for me to peel myself out of bed and measure my self-worth against the figure in my bank account; because sometimes I dream about the people I’ve lost and will lose, and I need to remind myself to live in the now. But I believe even more in the Eastern Zodiac, because every year I think more and more about not just the things I want to do, but also the things I have to do and will do someday.
I find comfort in the twin notions of macro and micro, bigger and smaller time; in hewing to advice both pointed and, practically speaking, pointless. A lot can change in a year. Tomorrow will be better. All you have to do is believe, one way or the other.