Background: M.S. is a 18-year-old student at the University of Southern California studying Business Administration. While she was born in the United States near San Jose, California, both of her parents are from Taiwan, and Taiwanese culture is thoroughly engrained into her character. M.S.’s family believes in many of the superstitions and legends typical of Taiwan, and they have been passed down in her family from generation to generation.
M.S.: If there’s a girl who dies before she gets married or before she has a chance to get married, the parents or the family will often times still hope that she will still get married so they will leave a red envelope full of money on the ground somewhere or in the streets on the girl’s birthday and then they like wills stay there to see who picks it up and if it’s a guy who picks it up then they will like go up to the guy and say “you picked up our daughter’s red envelope, you have to marry her” – yeah – so the concept is like – ok because in traditional or ancient like – so basically in traditional Chinese culture – even now – the women, um, are basically in the family records or family tree like history almost, the women are put under their husband’s family they wouldn’t – because they don’t carry their birth family’s name – right – it’s like their maiden name – they take on their husband’s name – they are part of their husband’s family so the parents like because there is also a tradition to I wouldn’t say like worship…there’s a better word… but basically like worship your ancestors – honor – like when they pass – you would still go to the temple or you would have a little shrine to honor your ancestors and like remember them.
So basically what parents and/or families would be worried about is that if their daughters don’t get a chance to marry and they pass away, they’re not going to have anyone who would honor them in the future because they wouldn’t be included in their family’s history – in their records. They are supposed to be in like – technically – her husband’s. So which is why they want to find a husband for their daughter and so the guy who picks up that red envelope would have to go through this whole process to like marry her even thought she is obviously like dead and have her included in his family records so that in the future like that his family line – someone will still honor her. Basically it’s the idea that if she weren’t included in one of those family histories and weren’t honored, she would just be this wild, they call it a “wild ghost” and she’s like just floating there on her own without a family or without anyone to remember her basically. So this is why they want to have this guy like marry her in a sense. But technically this guy – even though he is forced to marry this ghost girl in the future he is still allowed to marry someone in the future – for real. But basically the whole purpose is to get the girl in the family tree so that she can be honored in the future and not just forgotten and if the guy who picks up the red envelope disagrees – like doesn’t agree to marry – like go through this whole process, it is said that he will have bad luck for the rest of his life.
Q: What happens on the man’s family tree? Is the dead wife and the living wife both written under his family tree?
M.S.: Yes – put together.
Q: And this has no effect on the living wife?
M.S.: Yes – it wouldn’t because it’s not like they would officially go to the government and register that he’s married to this ghost wife – it’s just like going through the actions and then like having her included in the family tree.
Q: What would the “actions” be?
M.S.: It’s not as like set but it’s like some of the marriage customs like going to the girl’s house and bringing her to his home – but something that would represent her. This guy would go to the girl’s house and take her spirit to his home. Just whatever they choose to do but the point is that they would just include her in the family book but you wouldn’t formally register that I am married to this ghost girl.
But this is superstitious, it is not as common anymore. It is only certain parents – most parents nowadays would just forget about it. If this girl has like siblings – like brothers – have the brother’s kids honor her instead. So nowadays people wouldn’t necessarily be like…So she’s saying the majority of people wouldn’t do this anymore but there would still be a minority of people who were superstitious that would do this if the situation. Moral of the story is if you were walking along the streets and saw a red envelope or pouch full of money – don’t pick it up.
Q: What happens if a woman picks it up?
M.S.: If a woman picked it up, the family would say – this is not yours – we are looking for a man and they would take it and put it back on the ground.
Performance Context: The placement of a red envelope would be done by the family of a girl who had died before she had the chance to get married. This practice would occur in Taiwan, typically in small villages, and by superstitious families.
My Thoughts: This practice of finding a husband for a daughter, even after she has died, shows the importance in Taiwan of honoring your ancestors and also having future generations to honor you. For families who are superstitious, it is vital for them to find a “husband” for their deceased daughter to make sure that she will be honored in the future. Taiwanese society is also clearly patriarchal, given the fact that women’s names are written under the man’s name and on the man’s family tree.
“It’s just my nuclear family that’s here in America. So it’s my mom, my dad, sister, and me. So ‘family’ constitutes as, you know, those four and then just anyone who’s Taiwanese that we see, they’re considered family. So for Chinese New Year gatherings, we would gather together with like–probably like six other families, and we would do Chinese things.
So what we do as Taiwanese Americans… Normally you get together with every part of your family–like, mom’s, dad’s sides. But again, we’re just the four of us. So we just gather with these other families who are also just here by themselves. Um. So we all get together in one of our houses, like every year, we go to a different person’s house.
And, uh…there’s really no structure to it. Because I was a kid, so you know, you sit at the kids’ table, and then, um… So there’s food, there’s a lot of food. My family’s vegetarian…that’s–that’s the whole Buddhist part. So there’s…we go for the vegetarian option. But then the other families aren’t all Buddhist, so um…they…usually order take out. So part of it they cook, the other part is like, ‘too lazy, might as well just order.’
Um. And so, we usually just go and get food. And then the adults hang out upstairs and we hang out in the basement–like the lounge slash TV–wherever the TV is, the kids gravitate towards. So we play, like, video games.
And then there’s the transition after dinner, like when most people are done eating. Then we take turns, family by family, where you sit–the mom and dad on chairs, like in the lounge. And then you have the kids kind of sit and bow in front of them, and they kind of like–this is where you, like, ask for the red envelope. Where you have to earn it.
Which is–so, in Chinese New Year culture, you have the parents–I don’t know why we do this–the parents give a gift of monetary value in the form of a red envelope to the children. Um. Oh God, I don’t even know why. It’s probably–it’s a sense of good luck, and fortune. It means–it’s a metaphor for something. I don’t know what it is. I’m sure there’s a whole ritual for it, in China or Taiwan, but it’s like distilled down into, like: ‘Okay, the parents sit here. Okay, uh, ask for your red envelopes. In Chinese! In the broken Chinese that you have.’
And so you do that. And then there’s some hugging. And then, like…Asian families are a lot less vocal, about their emotions. It’s like, the love is just insinuated, like, “Oh yeah, I make food for you every night. I love you.” But here, it’s like, kinda awkward. You kinda wanna say it, but then it’s like… So. That happens. It’s, like, awkward. And, like…yeah.
So then each family does that. Oh, and when we were really young? They had us perform before that. So, like, there’d be a violin performance, and then another violin performance. And I think that’s about all we did. And then as we got older, it was just–go straight for it. Everyone just got too lazy.
And then after that, we would go back to eating and playing video games. And then cake. Because we would meet, like, once a month. So it was like, ‘Okay, all the–the January birthdays!’ and there would be a giant cake with candles on it. And you’d blow that out, and then we’d eat cake. And then play video games until our parents told us we had to go.
And that was Chinese New Year.
And all the other holidays seemed to be the same basic structure. Video games, some awkward ceremony…and cake.”
My informant moved to the US when he was five years old. He belongs to a Taiwanese-American Buddhist family, and he was very adamant about the fact that they were neither Taiwanese nor American, but a combination of the two. Because of this, he seemed unsure if the way that his family celebrates the Chinese New Year was “traditional” or bore any resemblance to the way other families celebrate the holiday.
The combination of the traditional (the red envelope ceremony – red for luck) and the modern (the kids all playing video games) seems to be the norm for many immigrant families. In my informant’s description of his Chinese New Year, it is evident that, as he explained, his family is both Taiwanese and American.
I found his aside about the way that his family shows love very interesting. They are tight-knit and obviously love each other, but as he describes it, it is much more demonstrative than stated outright. After all, what can be more loving than feeding your kids every day?
“During the Chinese New Year, I’m no sure about elsewhere in Asia, but in Singapore, the Red Packets are given from married people to single people. Red Packets are envelopes filled with money. Single in this case usually means younger folk. So the tradition is that the younger folk have to kneel in front of the older, married people, and say, “gong xi fa cai,” which is basically a congratulations. As they do this, they’re supposed to hand two oranges in outstretched palms facing upwards. You have to hand the orange to the elder respectfully. Then the elder will take the oranges and give you the Red Packed filled with money. It’s basically a favorite time of the year for all kids. You pretty much go family or house hopping during the two days we celebrate the Chinese New Years. Two days for us, and Hong Kong has like two weeks or something. And you collect money.”
My informant recollected this tradition with a lot of laughs and good memories. She remembers it as a time when she felt rich as a child with all the envelopes she received from her elders. Now it has a different meaning for her, since it is suppose to be a time for well wishes and respect. I understand this, as I grew up with a similar tradition. I also bowed to my elders and received money. When I was a child, I would be excited to receive the money and spend it on various things. Now, it is different in that I am more hesitant to take the money since I know the hard work that is required o earn the money. Instead, I look forward more to the advice they give. As they hand me envelopes, they usually also give me advice for the new upcoming year, as well as expectations. It is funny to compare what the elders said to me as a child and what they said to me now. Before they would tell me to behave and obey my parents. Now they speak about future spouses and jobs. I’m not sure where the tradition of receiving money for new years came about, but it is a time to show respect to elders through the bowing. You can see the joy on the faces of the elders as they watch their children and grandchildren bow to them, and how they happily give away the packets of money.
There was once a village that was terrorized by a monster at the same time every year. The monster targeted children. The townspeople could not defeat the monster and the monster would not leave them alone. One day, a young man with a red pouch went to battle the monster, but the monster ran from him. The man returned to the village, telling the townspeople that the monster was frightened by the color red. So, everyone in the village dressed their children in red. When the monster came to the village, it quickly fled, fearful of the color red. The villagers took the color red as a symbol of luck and gave the children red envelopes every year to ward away the monster and to bring good fortune to the child.
My informant has known this story as long as he can remember. His parents would tell it to he and his cousins around Chinese New Years. The monster described serves as a form of boogeyman, and the fact that the red envelopes given by the parents are needed to ward him away the monster allow for a form of black mail to make the children behave as the new year approaches, much as Santa does around Christmas time for Christians. It would be interesting to know if these traditions developed independently or if one inspired the other.
Chinese New Year/Traditions, Red Envelopes
Marissa described the Chinese New Year as a very family-oriented holiday, celebrating the beginning of a new year. Every year, a close friend or relative of hers has a party consisting of a big meal and a variety of little traditions.
The biggest tradition is when the older generation gives the younger generation red envelopes with money inside. Marissa said the amount depends on the person giving it and his or her relation to the recipients. The closer you are to a person, the more money will be inside the envelope. She has seen a range of everything from one dollar to $20. The reason behind this tradition is simply to kickoff a persons good fortune for the upcoming year, she said.
In order to receive a red envelope, you must say (in Cantonese) Kung hei fat choi, which loosely translates to Congratulations and be prosperous in English.
Red is an important color on this holiday. People, decorations, and the envelopes are all adorned with red, as it is the color of good fortune and happiness
The meal consists of the typical traditional Chinese dishes of meat, vegetables and rice. Marissa also mentioned that sweets play an important role, and there is always a tray of candies, mooncakes (pastry), mochi (pounded rice balls), and crackers, though she cant remember why or what they mean.
Because Marissa grew up with this tradition, she often does not know the meaning behind certain things. However, she said she truly enjoys it.
The Chinese New Year is a widely publicized occasion that is a good example of how foreign celebrations can become assimilated into a different culture entirely. I was taught the Chinese New Year traditions in my California elementary school, for example.
Bae, Hyun J. New Clothes For New Year’s Day. South Korea: Kane Miller Book Pub, 2007.