Red Envelopes

February 7, 2011

in through the looking glass

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.

Good times.

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…


The Chinese caption accompanying this picture says, "Kids, don't litter the envelopes otherwise the Monster, Year, will come after you!"


Way to go rabid environmentalists for killing the happiness that comes with getting free money from every adult in your life!

{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

sheila February 10, 2011 at 5:02 am

Wow, this was so well written, I felt as if I were there watching this unfold. I never knew of this tradition so I guess I learned something new today, thank you. :o)
sheila´s last blog post…Word of the week- Sunshine!


Absence Alternatives February 11, 2011 at 11:50 pm

Thank you so much for the kind words about my writing. I try! All joking aside, I do try since I feel the burden of NOT being seen as speaking “broken” English…


Pearl February 9, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Hey! I wasn’t expecting to LEARN today!


Great post. 🙂

Pearl´s last blog post…We’ll Let This One Slide Because You’re Clearly Still Wet Behind the Ears


Absence Alternatives February 10, 2011 at 12:10 am

Bawhahahah. Glad my evil plan worked.


Mary Lee February 9, 2011 at 11:43 am

What a delicious thrill for your kidlets! Do they get to spend it as they please or does it have to go into the College Fund rabbit hole?
Mary Lee´s last blog post…Catch ‘em If You Can


Absence Alternatives February 10, 2011 at 12:10 am

$20 is not going to make any dent to that college fund. My kids are misers and the money is now somewhere in their rooms making as much interest as it would have been if we have deposited into a checking account. LOL


Alexandra February 9, 2011 at 12:08 am

Oh, must click off before the boys see this red envelope biz.

NOT a good thing….
Alexandra´s last blog post…Yeah- Im a Freak


Absence Alternatives February 10, 2011 at 12:09 am

LOL. To me, it is so much easier to give anybody cash than to try to figure out a perfect gift!


Andrea February 8, 2011 at 7:58 pm

My kids would be all over this. I doubt I’d remember though. We’re backlogged with allowance by about 4 months. Terrible on the follow through over here.

I do so love hearing about your childhood and traditions and nostalgia though, truly! A very cool holiday.
Andrea´s last blog post…Runaway Part II


Absence Alternatives February 10, 2011 at 12:08 am

The allowance for our oldest goes into a “virtual” account I set up in Quicken automatically every week. Mr. Monk insists on having actual cash and therefore yes we are always forgetting to give him his allowance.


Jack February 8, 2011 at 6:37 pm

I used to have a Chinese SIL who would hand out Red Envelopes. Hmm, that doesn’t sound right. She is still Chinese, just not married to my BIL anymore.
Jack´s last blog post…Post Superbowl Sunday Reading List


Absence Alternatives February 10, 2011 at 12:06 am

This is funny. It reminds me of Walter in The Big Lebowski who insisted that he’s still Jewish even though he’s now divorced from his Jewish wife.


Renee Fisher February 8, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Love it. This is what Chinese, Jews (at least, when I was growing up), and Mafia have in common: Give cash.
Renee Fisher´s last blog post…A man spreads his legs…


Absence Alternatives February 10, 2011 at 12:05 am

Cash is king. 😉


Kernut the Blond February 8, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Cool! My dad’s wife is Chinese. I should stop by and ask them where my red envelope is.


Absence Alternatives February 10, 2011 at 12:04 am

YES YOU SHOULD esp. since you are single! You are still a “kid”. Sometimes we can definitely play this whole paternalistic society thing to our advantage!


SisterMerryHellish February 8, 2011 at 1:51 pm

Wikipedia says the translation of the red packets at Chinese New Year means…”literally, the money used to suppress or put down the evil spirit.”

Huh. I’ve got to get red packets for my demo…nieces, I meant nieces.
SisterMerryHellish´s last blog post…Seinfeld Post – Because It’s About Nothing


Absence Alternatives February 10, 2011 at 12:03 am

To protect the kids. So yeah, they should have used Red Envelopes in the Exorcist.


The Barreness February 8, 2011 at 10:27 am

If only I had your address, I’d send you a red envelope from the UK.

It would probably just have cut out photos of Javier Bardem in it, but…um…what’s the issue there?

– B x
The Barreness´s last blog post…I should discuss more weird shit on this blog Or at least use more profanity


Absence Alternatives February 10, 2011 at 12:02 am

Not to argue with you m’lady but I would have preferred a tissue from you with your lipstick on it.. 😉 RED for good luck, I mean.


Wicked Shawn February 8, 2011 at 9:55 am

I love this. I wish I had sent the Penguin in a red envelope. Damnit!
Wicked Shawn´s last blog post…Some Things Should NOT Be Seen


Wicked Shawn February 8, 2011 at 9:56 am

No, wait, then you would have hoped for cash…….that would have been bad! Hehehe.

Also, will someone talk Duff back into her red envelope cash roll idea, then lets get pix……..
Wicked Shawn´s last blog post…Some Things Should NOT Be Seen


dufmanno February 8, 2011 at 10:23 am

Too late.
I already did it and no one was there with a camera.
dufmanno´s last blog post…This Is The Speech I Want To Hear Someday


Absence Alternatives February 10, 2011 at 12:01 am

*psss* Shawn, I have installed a hidden camera in her bedroom…


writerwoman61 February 8, 2011 at 9:15 am

Until you wrote about it, I didn’t know about the “red envelope” tradition, Lin! I’m glad you’ve modified it to suit your own family (i.e. letting the kids keep the money!)…

writerwoman61´s last blog post…A Premature Passing Pecans- Pesto- and Pizza and the Plowman Pops In…


Absence Alternatives February 9, 2011 at 11:59 pm

The amount we gave the kids is small compared to the “going rate” back home. Imagine a kid getting say 2 dozens of envelopes each with $40+USD worth? It’s insane.


Elly Lou February 8, 2011 at 9:03 am

I love it when you get all writerly, pookie. The part about the smells? The lingering? “….the way the burnt smell of exploded fireworks did…” You’re beautiful.
Elly Lou´s last blog post…Yellow Pants and Other Bad Fashion Choices


Absence Alternatives February 9, 2011 at 11:57 pm

Thank you. *blush*


TechnoBabe February 8, 2011 at 7:42 am

Interesting to know that the red envelopes were the only gifts all year, no birthday gifts. I once attended a wedding that lasted from early in the morning till late into the night for a Vietnamese friend and she received red envelopes from each guest. Her sister stayed by me and interpreted the events for me throughout the day. It was awesome. You show the honesty you learned from your parents when you describe you did not withhold any of the money. Did your parents put the money in a savings account for you or did the money get absorbed into the household?
TechnoBabe´s last blog post…Keeping Warm- Baby


Absence Alternatives February 9, 2011 at 11:57 pm

There was no savings account for me, the money was just absorbed. We were brainwashed since day one that we owe our parents to bring us up and to take such good care of us so there really was no arguing with them saying, Hey, you need to give me MY money back. To be fair, your parents are supposed to support you until you get a job or get married. Kind of a sweet deal eh?


secret agent woman February 8, 2011 at 6:21 am

It would kill me to have the money taken back away! Especially once a kid is past the toy age, I think cash is the way to go. I have a sister who insists on giving gift cards to my kids. This year I told her they wanted cards from Target and then I bought them from the kids so they could have money to spend as they please.
secret agent woman´s last blog post…The rollercoaster of healing- Part 2


Absence Alternatives February 9, 2011 at 11:55 pm

That is a great idea! Right now in my purse I carry gift cards from at least 5 different stores that my kids got from Xmas since I have no idea when we will be near any of those stores!


StephanieC | Seriously? Really?? Seriously? February 7, 2011 at 10:00 pm

Wow, this was really cool to read about.

I am painfully, embarassingly ignorant to other cultures. I love learning about how things are done in other places and in other cultures.

This sounds pretty wicked, with the exception of Mom taking back all that sweet dough.
StephanieC | Seriously? Really?? Seriously?´s last blog post…Rap- The Superbowl- and Sex-ay Knees


Absence Alternatives February 9, 2011 at 11:54 pm

I learned about American cultures from Hollywood movies and popular TV shows so I am not sure how “accurate” that is. LOL.


dufmanno February 7, 2011 at 8:15 pm

That is a red envelope MINOTAUR!!!!!!
Imagine it galloping after you with a club when you litter? Magnificent deterrent.
I spelled deterrrent wrong but I’ve got to keep moving so I can’t fix it.

You have given me the best idea ever. I am going to have everyone give me cash in red envelopes. Then I’m going to throw them on my bed and strip down naked before rolling in them all night.
That’s even better than sex.

Actually, I might scrap this idea now because when I read it over I just sounded like a prostitute fufilling some John’s sick twister money rolling fantasy.
Hookers ruin all my dreams.
dufmanno´s last blog post…This Is The Speech I Want To Hear Someday


Absence Alternatives February 9, 2011 at 11:52 pm

But look at this

Doesn’t it look like fun?!


pattypunker February 7, 2011 at 8:14 pm

loved this nostalgic story and love this quote: Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson: you find the present tense, but the past perfect! aint that the truth.

ps: may all of your red envelopes be big and fat!
pattypunker´s last blog post…voices in my head


Absence Alternatives February 9, 2011 at 11:44 pm

One of the few things that I would love to be big and fat! 😉


A Vapid Blonde February 7, 2011 at 6:10 pm

I still expect envelopes from my parents around the holidays. Sadly they don’t realize my expectaions anymore. Sigh.
A Vapid Blonde´s last blog post…Alligator Heads and Crusty Baguettes


Absence Alternatives February 9, 2011 at 11:43 pm

You should spell it out for them. Parents are not very good at hints.


Jessica February 7, 2011 at 5:31 pm

I think I really like this red envelope idea….


Absence Alternatives February 9, 2011 at 11:43 pm

Me too! *sigh*


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