Jī Lèi

ji lei definition


I’ll admit it: I may be too sentimental for my own good. It’s been a tendency of mine since childhood to attach unnecessary emotional value to things. A brief sampler: I have a hard time discarding packaging or advertisements that feature pictures of people’s faces because it feels heartless. I don’t like to pitch even junk mail without reading it — I’m upset by the notion that someone spent time and effort to write a message that will never be read, often on a piece of paper that will never be freed from an envelope that traveled just to reach me, never to be opened. I keep birthday and holiday cards for years, worried I might hurt the feelings of whoever gave them to me by throwing away the heartfelt message inside. I’m guilty of doing the same with old calendars, thinking it’s a shame to toss out all the lovely images I only got to enjoy for one short month of my life. And perhaps the quirk that causes me the most inner turmoil of all: I’m bothered by spiders, yet if I witness one killed by human effort — especially in my home, a place I tout as a safe haven and sanctuary — I will agonize the loss of its probably-barely-even-conscious life for days.

It’s overly dramatic, yes, but it’s how I think. I’m a highly sensitive soul.

So I identify quite strongly with the Chinese concept of “chicken ribs”. The origin of the expression is exactly what it sounds like. Of course, you can’t eat chicken bones, but — at least to my understanding, as a vegetarian with zero culinary sense — it still feels oddly wasteful to throw them away because, well, they’re still part of the chicken. So in the literal sense, something that is “chicken ribs” is something you want neither to eat nor to throw away, making it an appropriate and amusing analogy for any object with little to no use that you nonetheless feel compelled to keep.* Why do we do this? Perhaps it’s a “just in case” mentality — preparing for a future where anything can happen, and having certain objects laying around may prove beneficial. Or if you’re as overly sentimental as me, maybe you’re hanging on to the possibility that somewhere down the line, this thing will resurface in your life and bring with it a sudden newfound fondness for whatever memory it calls to mind. Have I ever actually gone back and looked at my old collected cards or calendars? Well, no, but maybe someday I might. Maybe this card, this calendar will be different.

Letting things go is a skill that must be learned. I like to think I’m better now than I was as a child, but there’s still a part of me, an old habit that I never really outgrew, that instinctively shies away when asked why I’m holding on to something and if I should get rid of it. Who’s to say that this thing will never again be useful or relevant to me? It saddens me to think about. The very concept of a “never” bothers me if I let it. “Never”, to my mind, is inseparably entangled with “maybe” and “what if”. Whether dealing with spiders or inanimate objects, I’m simply not comfortable knowing I am the decider of something’s fate. But as an adult, it’s unfortunately necessary. Luckily, we live in a day and age when there are ever more ways to part with things with a clear conscience. By reusing, donating, recycling, and composting what I can, I’m doing my part to save things from an eternity in a landfill — surely the worst of all fates. I tell myself that by letting those things go, I’m giving them the chance to go on, to become more than what they could have been had they stayed forever with me. Their journey goes on, and so does mine.

My sentimentality still gets the better of me sometimes. But there is some good that comes out of it. A certain sensitivity to the needs of the world is, in moderation, a positive thing. Whether the bones enhance the experience of eating the chicken or not, it wouldn’t be the same without them; they make a difference, and nothing that makes a difference is ever truly wasted. Chicken ribs — both the literal and metaphorical ones — are vessels for our appreciation of that difference. So even as we lay the remains of the chicken to rest, we can thank it for its life, finding closure in knowing that our paths crossed when it mattered to us. Then, with our respects thus duly paid, we are free to move on.


* One source claimed that the expression can also be applied to the annoying situation, familiar even to the least sentimental among us, when you have an amount of free time long enough that waiting it out feels wasteful, yet not long enough to be used in any meaningful way. I would have liked to delve into this interpretation a bit more, but it simply didn’t fit in with the rest of the post, so I’ll simply leave off with an anecdote: While researching this term I came across a thread on a language forum where a native Chinese speaker was wondering if there was any equivalent expression in English. The English speakers who responded, taking the expression very literally, at first inundated the thread with confused posts concerning whether chickens even have ribs. (They do, for the record.) The original poster eventually clarified their question and did at last receive some more constructive answers, but to me, the thread’s meandering and ultimately pointless beginning seemed amusingly like a “chicken ribs” situation in and of itself. I mean, hey, at least now I know what a chicken skeleton looks like.

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