When kids have no say...

My collection of ang pau packets
“Have you bought a new red dress yet?” a friend teased me a few days before the Lunar New Year.  We exploded in laughter because it’s been a long time since we observed this “new red outfit” tradition.  For us now, the outfit need not be new and red but could be in any bright and cheerful colour.  Thinking about the Lunar New Year, I recalled a time when I had no say about what I wanted to wear. 

One of my earliest memories is wearing new pajamas to bed on the eve of the Lunar New Year.  My sisters and I must have looked rather cute in pj’s of same design but in pastel shades of blue for my eldest sister, pink for my second sister and green for me.  I can still picture the embroidered motif of cavorting Chinese kids in pigtails on white cotton cloth but I mostly remember how uncomfortable it was to sleep in since it was brand new.

Just before the New Year arrived, mum would take us to the hairdresser to get a new hairdo to complete the whole new look.  Again I had no say about my hairstyle so that probably explains why I looked so glum with my new look.  The only consolation about waiting in the queue for my turn with the hairdresser was watching with interest as tai-tai’s had their hair washed, rolled and set under a helmet blower and then elaborately styled into bouffant beehives.

Three sisters [Left to Right], Pearly, Ruby
and Peggy, wearing new red dresses
In the morning of the Lunar first day, mum would have a new dress complete with new underwear, shoes and socks for us to wear.  The New Year of 1965 sticks out in my memory simply because someone had this brilliant idea to dress my cousins, sisters and I alike in dresses that were of course, red in colour.  Who needs to dress alike just as we were trying to establish our own identity?

Decked up in new outfits, we would visit our grandparents where we eagerly anticipated receiving “lai see” or lucky money in red packets.  Only married people give “ang pau” and by Chinese definition, those who are married are considered adults, so singles can receive ang pau for as long as they stay unmarried.

One of my fondest memories of the Lunar New Year must be the exciting feel of crisp notes and its distinct new smell.  We were taught that it’s rude to open ang pau in front of the givers so we would peep discreetly to compare how much we received.

New Year fun is certainly for the kids because I used to dread the Lunar New Year as an adult.  That’s because when grandma gave me an ang pau, she would ask me that million-dollar question: “When are you getting married?”  Each year I would smile and humour her by echoing Snow White’s line in her song, “Someday my prince would come!”

Amanda receiving ang pau from her
A few years later, when that proverbial prince was taking a bit longer to turn up, my forward-thinking grandma realized that marriage does not rank high on my to-do list.  She was so cool to actually stop asking that million-dollar question but rephrased her words to assure me with, “Who needs marriage when you have such a successful career!”  She would instead bless me with auspicious words like, “Po po ko seng,” a wish for ‘job promotion or greater advancement with every step.’

But getting married does not put an end to the quizzing.  Well-meaning relatives would accost the couple with the next important question, “When will the baby arrive?”  I’ve seen modern couples cringe with embarrassment as relatives, usually with a brood in tow, tactlessly probe into their personal lives.  And even if the couple had a first child, the inevitable question is, “When are you going to give him/her a little brother/sister?”

As the family expands numerically it’s quite easy to recognize the elderly who would have only grown grayer with each passing year.  But when babies turned into toddlers or kids matured into young adults, they change beyond recognition.  This year my cousin’s wife of less than 2 months faced the dilemma to figure out who’s who in a Lunar New Year family gathering so a discussion ensued about a project to map out our family tree.

The spirit of the culture is family unity and togetherness and it’s a challenge to know who are siblings, cousins or in-laws, their ranks and official titles.  With a family that spans four generations located in Malaysia and in countries that extend from nearby Singapore to Sweden, UK, Ukraine, North America and Australia, it’s a daunting task to map out details of names, ages and locations.  For us, it’s not just a family tree but a family forest!

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets in January 2009

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