red packets and family reunions (2020)
In this piece, I revisit the family and cultural tradition of Chinese New Year through the eyes of seven-year-old me. Writing in the second person was a little bit out of my comfort zone but done intentionally, with the purpose of creating a piece readers could imagine themselves a part of.
It is barely 7:00 in the morning but 7-year-old you is already up, dressed, and scurrying down the 5 blocks to your grandmother’s house. Your parents’ warnings of “stop running” and “careful!” chase you as your tiny figure dodges past mothers with arms full of shopping bags and lines forming outside stores for some last-minute shopping. Red paper lanterns spelling out “Happy Chinese New Year!” hang in rows from shop windows, and piles of snacks lay on doorsteps. The sound of popping firecrackers and the fragrance of fresh tangerines follow you as you make your way down the streets, across the road, into the small alleyway. There, tucked behind a row of parked motorcycles and through a door nestled between a pharmaceutical store and barber shop, is your grandmother’s two-story house.
You burst through the wooden door and up the steep staircase. You have barely stepped foot on the landing when uncle Mark– the undisputed family chef– carries you into the kitchen, where he is hard at work preparing dishes of Nian Gao and pan-fried fish. You escape from under his grasp, sneaking bites from spring rolls and Tang Yuan as you dart past his fingers threatening to tickle you, and into the living room. There, a crowd of aunts and uncles and cousins however-many-times-removed gather under one roof, once a year. Your cousins eagerly wave you over to the corner, where they are watching “最強大腦” while playing cards, but instead you join your grandmother at the dining table in making dumplings. You are young, your hands still too small to stop the dumpling wrapper from drooping past your fingertips. But your fingers, nimble from years of crocheting beanies and darning sweaters, allow you to make the delicate dumpling folds. And so you sit there, hair dusted with flour and hands full with filling, at a table too high for your feet to touch the floor, giggling as aunt Irene– the one who treats your family to 瓦城 every summer– and your mom share childhood stories of falling down the steep staircase and calling out to people on the sidewalk from the second-floor balcony.
More than anything, Chinese New Year has always seemed like a trade to you. So, your hands can hardly keep still by your side when the adults announce that it is time for the red-packet ceremony. As always, red-packets, gifts, and money are exchanged with half-hearted blessings for a happy new year– “恭喜發財，紅包拿來”. But this year’s tradition has a twist. As an extra game created by the adults, you also get the chance to fish out money from a bag of coins. Being the youngest, you go first. As you stare into the pile of glittering coins, your eyes widen to the size of saucepans at the thought of earning money fast and easy. But as the youngest and smallest, you are at a natural disadvantage: your hands are too small to grasp the concept, let alone grab onto the coins. You reach into the bag, eyes closed and breath held, and dig into the pile of metal. The flat and rounded edges of the cold metal digs into your skin as your fingers bury themselves deeper, deciding that the taller the pile was, the more money there would be. Yet, as you bring your hand out of the bag, few coins spill out, adding to a meager total of $985 dollars.
“It’s not fair!” you complain, as you watch your brother dig out a mountain of coins. Your older cousins follow, with each mountain high enough to rival Everest, while yours is barely a mound. Yet, your cousins make fun of your small stature instead, patting you on the head before saying a simple “Better luck next time.”
Soon, daylight fades and the grandfather clock chimes. All bickering is finally put aside as the family gathers around the dimly-lit dining table to ring in the Chinese New Year together. Even so, it takes another 7 years, a quiet room 7908 miles away from your hometown, and weeks of not seeing your family for you to realize the true importance of Chinese New Year.
: A scientific game show that is quite popular in Taiwan
: A restaurant curating Thai-cuisine
: Translates roughly to wishing someone a happy new year, then promptly asking for a red packet
: A Taiwanese dollar has a value of around 1/32 of an American dollar, $985 NT converts roughly to $32.75 USD