Subject: So…I think the idea is that…the rule that my family uses is, if you’re still in school…you receive. And once you have a job, like a full-time job, then you give. Um. And then so, when we were kids, like, each set of parents would usually give an envelope to each kid. And I think when we were younger it was like…just like, pocket money, like, maybe five bucks, 10 bucks. And like, as we got older, maybe 20, 40.
Um. And then I think for…for all of us I think when we graduated high school it was like, a bigger sum?
The subject is a 22-year-old Taiwanese-American woman in her fourth year at USC. Her parents are immigrants from Taiwan, and celebrating Chinese festivals have been a family tradition since childhood.
The interviewer is a 21-year-old Taiwanese-American student in his third year at USC. As someone who is from the same folk group, he is familiar with most major Chinese festivals.
The subject was describing a ritual associated with the festival of Chinese New Year, called red envelopes (紅包), which contained lucky money (壓歲錢).
The subject additionally describes two contexts where lucky money was given. The first is a situation involving a family friend named Annie, who had been working this year and stated she wouldn’t be accepting any red envelopes. However, the subject’s parents still brought Annie a red envelope, causing “a little bit of conflict.” Annie ended up taking the envelope anyway. The subject reflects on the absurdity of the incident, thinking about her own future as a grad school student. She wonders if, by that point, the decision rule would still continue to make sense, given that she will probably be in school until the age of 30.
After the interviewer mentioned that there were lawsuits going around for children suing parents who had taken their lucky money, the subject laughed, and brought up an instance when her dad took her lucky money. During the sophomore summer year of high school, her family went to visit Taiwan for the first time in a couple of years. Her grandma on her dad’s side had given her a really big sum, supposedly for college. When her grandma gave the money to her, her dad told her that she had to turn over the sum of money to him, and afterwards, she “never saw a dime” of it.
These two contexts illuminate the purpose of red envelopes with relation to Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year is one of many festivals that celebrate the passage of time. In the instance of Annie, the red envelope serves as a rite of passage. One demonstrates that they have grown up, by demonstrating they have earned enough money to handle the financial obligation of giving red envelopes to the children who haven’t. The conflict for Annie arose because even though Annie had believed she had earned the right to play the grown-up role in the red envelope ritual, the subject’s parents disagreed, and still put her in the position of being a child receiver. The fact that Annie still ended up taking the red envelope shows her lower status with regards to the more established adults in the ritual.
The second instance in Taiwan further shows the purpose of red envelopes as a coming-of-age ritual. Parents, like the subject’s father who took her red envelope money for college, have reasonable anxiety over whether children have the financial responsibility to handle large sums of money. They feel that as adults, they have the duty to safeguard that money. Safeguarding the money is not only a financial practicality—it is a social signal. It demonstrates to other adults that the parents are fulfilling their social duties as financially responsible adults, and it also teaches children about their cultural status: adults are higher than children, and the way to attain that height, is through practicing financial responsibility.