It’s the second day of Chinese New Year. We’ve stepped into a new zodiac year, the year of the Ram/Goat/Sheep. Wishing everyone much health, happiness and prosperity! If you’ve any Chinese relatives or friends, or you’re Chinese yourself you will know what the new year entails. It’s a time for money. Hard earned cash given away and accepted in pockets of red. Stashes and stashes of them. It’s good to be a kid! It’s good to be single! Because if you’re married you must be the one to give. And if you’re a kid or single you get to receive.
Money isn’t just handed out – it must be folded nicely into red packets and given away with ideally, two hands. The one accepting the red packet (lai see, or, hong bao) is supposed to well-wish the giver. My standard phrases are wishing one health, happiness, success and peace. The locals say it really quickly – as a child I prided myself in saying a series of wishes all under one breath and a huge smile.
If you’re married – you’ll be forking out thousands of dollars giving out money to people you hardly see and some people you hardly know 🙂 It’s different when you’re giving it out to close relatives, especially the little ones you really like. But it’s a different thing when you’re expected to give it to every one in your building that happens to cross your path, or works for you under some capacity. Giving and receiving is an art in itself – if you’re receiving you want to be noticed because you don’t want anyone to miss you out. But it must also not appear to be too forced or fake. And if you’re giving you want to make sure you cover everyone so as to be fair. But if there are say, 10 receptionists and 10 cleaners working in your building it’s sometimes hard to keep track of everyone!
I don’t really know when this tradition started, but it seems to be a time for a slight redistribution of wealth. Parents give their kids red packets as pocket money, so that ideally they start a saving habit since a young age. Bosses give their workers red packets. Relatives of higher order (more senior by age and by status) are supposed to give to lower status/younger relatives. So you will see plenty of old men and women with stashes of red packets to give away – to everyone that visits her home during Chinese New Year. The lower status you are, the more you have to go visit other higher relatives’ homes. My mom would bring us to visit her older brother, and her older brother would go visit another older brother, and they would all go visit their mother, since their mother is superior by status to all her children. Age, in Chinese culture, often translates to automatic respect.
It’s a lot of fun – visiting people’s homes. Most of the time you realise that nothing has changed – the home has the exact same furnishings and wall colour throughout the years you’ve visited. Sometimes – you get a pleasant surprise – someone’s home just got refurbished and you get a fresh breath of air. I suspect, the reason that the homes I visit never change much, is because most of these houses belong to older people. When you’re older, you have less energy and fewer resources to remodel your home. Many old people I know have been so comfortable living in the cramped quarters of their apartment, hosting the same discoloured walls and cluttered bookshelves. I suspect familiar, unchanged surroundings brings forth a sense of belonging. Sometimes the lack of change is not by choice.
Age is a sensitive topic. My dad always reminds us to go every year, to visit our elderly relatives, because “one more year is one more year”. What he really means is that you never know when this year will be the last. I missed out on seeing a granduncle forever because the one year I was traveling and away from home for the new year, he passed away. What happens, happens. Can’t live life fearing what you’re about to lose. But dad’s words rang in my ears. Cherish every moment and every person.
I think that’s the true spirit of Chinese New Year. You see relatives and friends whom you wouldn’t normally see throughout the year. To catch up, to wish each other well. To start anew. To pass on blessings. To cook and prepare a feast together and welcome all the different generations of kin under one roof. That, is why I love this holiday so much.
And yes, I still get to receive red packets without giving any out yet!
What about you? What holiday season or festival you do you love most?
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