Never mind exactly how old I am. Let’s just say I’m too old to be receiving a red envelope from my parents on Chinese New Year. Yet every year they still go through the ritual, presenting me with a lucky red hongbao embossed in gold with the characters for prosperity. This coming Sunday, I’ll open my envelope to find freshly minted greenbacks still crisp to the touch. I’ll protest, as I do every year, just a little, just enough to be respectable. Then I’ll accept it as though I were relieving my mother and father of a burden.
By now I should be the one giving out red envelopes to my kids, but I don’t have any children, so I continue in perennial adolescence. Even at large family dinners, which are like mini conventions, I sit at the “kids’” table with my sister, who has three kids herself, and all my other cousins. My parents, aunts, and uncles sit around the big, round cherry-wood table in the living room, spinning the dishes around the lazy susan, joking with each other in Mandarin, while we, their offspring, gather around the TV in the family room, speaking English.
Someday, this will change. Someday, we “kids” will be the only ones left. Then what?
In my grandparents’ day back in China, Chinese New Year was the most important holiday of all. Food was scarce, so the New Year’s feast was the best meal you got all year. People had less control over their destiny, so rituals to mollify the workings of fate were especially important.
It was a little bit different for my parents, but not a lot. They grew up with nothing and came to America and built new lives, rising from the ground up like the model homes in the subdivisions in the San Gabriel Valley, where they settled. For them, Chinese New Year wasn’t just a habit. Its traditions were part of what they brought over from China to Taiwan to America, along with their hopes and dreams for me.
Today, my parents live a comfortable middle-class existence in America. I’ve been here since I was nine. My story is a common one: I settled into American life pretty quickly. I liked Chinese New Year celebrations, but I also liked Thanksgiving and Christmas, Cinco De Mayo and St. Patrick’s Day. That’s part of settling in a place like Los Angeles: home of the Kogi Korean BBQ taco, the cultural ambassadors Ozomatli, Asian-American rappers Far East Movement, and films (including one of mine) showing the multicultural experience. This is the mosh pit of the world, where cultures collide and give rise to new traditions.
I certainly don’t believe that my fortunes or ability to fend off bad luck hinges on a red piece of paper, nor do I believe that my prosperity is ensured by eating sautéed rice cake and whole fish. I don’t even know how to make sautéed rice cakes. And yet, for some reason, I feel more compelled than ever to hold onto the tradition of Chinese New Year. Part of it is a sense of responsibility to my parents, who didn’t come all this way just so I would forget where I came from, the blood that runs through my veins. (I suspect that’s one reason why they keep giving me the red envelopes, to reinforce what they would like to pass down.) Another part of it is a sense that if I let the tradition slip I’ll lose a valuable part of who I am. I’ll lose an anchor. And we all need anchors.
As luck would have it, I have begun passing on red envelopes.
It started a couple of years ago, when I was getting lunch at the NBC commissary and having my daily banter with the cashier, Marianna, a solidly built Latina with dark curls and a spunky disposition.
“Hola Daisy! $8.75, chica.
“Here you go. How’s it going?”
“It’s a beautiful day, and we’re stuck in here, how come?”
“Because we don’t have rich husbands.”
Then she said to me, “Daisy, Chinese New Year is coming soon. Will you get a red envelope?”
Her eyes lit up. “Really?” she asked. “Will you save it for me?” I chuckled in surprise, since she has never requested anything from me in the years I have known her.
“Sure,” I said. “Why do you want a red envelope?”
“Because it will bring me good luck,” she said.
So, for the past two years, I have saved my red envelope and given it to Marianna on Chinese New Year. I stuff a little cash in there, along with my good wishes for her. I hope it brings her a lot of good luck, and it helps me hold onto something, too.
The tradition continues, L.A. style.