For Chinese New Year, instead of wrapped-up presents, children are given cold hard cash inside red envelopes for good luck.
We are a practical people.
I still remember the excitement on Chinese New Year’s eve: after the big dinner, my parents would call me to their bedroom and hand me a red envelope. My parents never bought me any presents partly because birthday celebrations for children had not been a popular concept although people do celebrate the elder’s significant birthdays such as when Grandma finally hits 80 and hasn’t kicked the bucket yet, and partly because we were not poor but not wealthy either.
That New Year’s Eve red envelope was IT.
Of course, every other adult that you see during the 15 days of Chinese New Year is expected to give you a red envelope. The more relatives and friends your family have, the more red envelopes you get. The more red envelopes you get, the higher your net worth becomes, that is, until your mother takes them all away, “I will save it for you!”
Of course, you never see that money again.
I am embarrassed to admit that, at least during Chinese New Year, you DO have a favorite aunt or uncle, the one who’s known to give out generous amount in their red envelopes. As soon as you wake up on the first day of Chinese New Year, you try to figure out WHEN you will be visiting them by asking your parents indirect questions such as,
“When are we going to visit this or that uncle/aunt?”
And then deny vehemently when your mother accuses you of wanting to visit them simply for the big, fat red envelope you know you’ll be getting.
You also will try and hide your disappointment when your mother strikes some stupid deal with an aunt of yours to NOT give red envelopes to each other’s children.
I don’t remember much from my childhood but I do remember counting the money vividly. It was a ritual in itself.
It was of course never polite to count the money right then and there and therefore I would stash the red envelopes away, in the pocket of my jacket, in my fuzzy poodle purse, in my oversized Japanese-style wallet, in my closet. (It has happened more than once, I believe, that I lost my red envelopes. The memory is fuzzy now because it was rather traumatic and I am pretty sure I have blocked it off…) The whole day the thought of those envelopes and HOW MUCH MONEY in each of them lingered, the way the burnt smell of exploded fireworks did, and those envelopes surely felt like they were burning a hole inside my pocket. I waited till the end of day to spread out all the red envelopes on the bed and counted out my loot. I took my time to take all the bills out, feel each one of them, take in the intoxicating smell of crisp new bills. I then return the money into the red envelopes, careful not to crease the bills. I remembered who gave me which red envelope by looking at the different design on each of them. This was important because later my mother needed to know who gave how much so that she could make sure to reciprocate next year. It’s amazing how she would remember the next year even though she did not take any notes when she was going through my red envelopes after Chinese New Year.
It was like a tacit agreement between us: She would grant me the pleasure of keeping the red envelopes and counting the money every night, and I would turn them all over when this was over.
Once I tried to stash away one of the red envelopes, and my mother asked coolly, “Aunt So-And-So did not give you a red envelope this year?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged with the studied casualness of a method actor, “I probably put it somewhere… Oh, yes, here it is.”
I never tried to fool her again.
Now in hindsight, as in right at this moment, I could have stashed away a hundred-dollar bill (40:1 Currency exchange rate, people, don’t get too excited) from at least some of the red envelopes. She would probably have never sensed anything wrong.
Nah. She would probably have caught me anyway.
Being here by myself, I don’t really do anything special for Chinese New Year with my own kids. Although part of me felt guilty for sucking at bringing Chinese New Year magic to my children, some part of me felt this was merely nostalgiz playing an unfair trick. After all, according to everybody back home, Chinese New Year is not the way it was any more. Nowadays people take advantage of the 5-day holiday and travel abroad so you can hardly find anybody to visit during that week. Many overseas Chinese would also tell you that going back to Taiwan during Chinese New Year is the worst timing: your relatives and friends are probably out of the country, and most of the stores and restaurants are closed.
Perhaps because of its convenience, the tradition of giving children red envelopes remains, and it is the only Chinese New Year tradition I am consciously keeping. It was satisfying watching Mr. Monk’s eyes light up.
“You mean, you are just giving us this money?”
“Yup. This is Hong Bao. Red Envelope. It is for good luck.”
“Wow! You mean I get to keep the money inside?”
I wanted to say, “And I am not taking it away from you when Chinese New Year is over.”
But it was late at night and this would entail a long story.
Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson: you find the present tense, but the past perfect!
— Owens Lee Pomeroy
What do you know? Someone managed to kill my nostalgia for The Most Awesome Chinese Tradition aka Red Envelopes…
Way to go rabid environmentalists for killing the happiness that comes with getting free money from every adult in your life!