When I told my friends in Australia that it was the "Year of the Rabbit" for the Chinese, they were horrified.
Rabbits, in Australia, are terrible feral pests, who do untold damage to the environment. They've been so bad and have reproduced to reach such huge numbers that a vast "rabbit-proof" fence was erected to keep them out of agricultural areas.
They have even been subjected to biological warfare, with two killer diseases purposefully released to wipe them out.
Everywhere, they are hunted and trapped to keep their numbers under control.
Of course, this isn't the case in China, where they're a native animal, whose population is kept in check by their natural predators. Here, rabbits can rest their fluffy tails without worrying that someone is going to try and blow it off!
Some Chinese expatriates I spoke to in Adelaide suggested Australia should adopt a slightly different zodiac calendar, one more befitting of the native wildlife, while trying to retain the values of the old one.
Thus, the Year of the Rabbit could become the Year of the Bilby, with only subtle alterations of the traditional images. A bilby is an Australian animal, closely akin to the rabbit, with big ears and powerful hind legs but a longer, pointier nose, for hunting insects.
They've already begun to replace the Easter Bunny in Australia, and could quite happily fill the role in the zodiac. Being an endangered species, the publicity generated would help their cause.
Of course, they'd just be part of what's become a steadily growing trend toward Australian culture creeping into China.
Since our return from Australia, I've noticed more and more people in Tianjin wearing Ugg boots.
These are sheepskin boots, originally fashioned by shearers in the outback from the fleece of the sheep they were working with. Perfect for keeping out the cold in the long winter nights in the Australian bush, they have become a fashion icon right here!
It doesn't just stop at the Ugg boot, either. As the caf culture booms across China, small cakes are following in its wake.
One particularly huge chain of fast coffee shops has introduced lamingtons. These traditional Australian confections are cubes of sponge cake, dipped into relatively thin chocolate icing, which is allowed to partially soak in. They're then rolled in desiccated coconut and ravenously consumed by homesick expats eager for even the slightest taste of Oz!
Also popular at the moment is a growing range of lanolin creams, which help soften and smoothen tired skin. Lanolin is a by-product of the wool industry, the grease from the fleece that helps to keep the sheep warm and waterproof as they roam the paddocks. My wife, Ellen, swears that it's done wonders for her hands - and it's true. They're lovely and soft to hold!
My greatest wish is that China will suddenly embrace the meat pie, but I'm not going to hold my breath on that one!
Cultural exchange isn't a one-way street though, and a lot of Chinese culture is making its way into Australia. Chinese people have been living in Australia almost since its founding and are still continuing to have a large influence.
With all this cross-cultural sharing, it's hard to know what'll happen next. I can only hope that it's going to be an ongoing thing, which will bring Australians and Chinese closer together in happiness.
So, perhaps next Spring Festival - when you're sitting in a caf with your friends, tucking into a lamington, while wearing your Ugg boots - you may be able to wish them, "xin nian koa la" ("happy new year", or "xin nian kuai le" in Chinese)!
(China Daily 02/22/2011 page20)