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Breaking through a lifelong cynicism toward tradition

By HAYDN JAMES FOGEL | China Daily | Updated: 2024-02-08 09:03
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Cultural traditions are the building blocks of identity. From the time we take our first breath, we wear the shoes of our ancestors to climb ladders they built in the hopes of navigating life's trials. Or so I've been told.

My family eschewed faith and organized religion and opted to form its own secular path. I remember my mother dismissing traditions as thoughtless exercises in nostalgia.

By the time I became an adult, I considered Christmas decorations gaudy. New Year's Eve was an arbitrary moment in Earth's orbit, and if people truly loved each other, they wouldn't need to waste money on cheap corporate gifts on Valentine's Day because they would declare it every day.

My cynicism held firm when I moved to China. If anything, I became less trusting of tradition initially. Experiencing Lunar New Year for the first time proved that one could pick any random day to celebrate a completed circle around the sun. I'll admit I remember confusing one or two strangers by cheering for the new year in the middle of summer. It's not the most charming thing I've ever done.

One year, my girlfriend declared that it was time for me to begin accompanying her to visit her family during Spring Festival. Being Cantonese, she taught me how to hold my hands together and say gong hei fat choi. When I realized I would be saying that to childishly beg her mother for a red packet, my heart sank into my stomach.

I was a teenager the last time I received money as a holiday gift. My grandparents would send me a card with cash inside every birthday and Christmas growing up. Eventually, it became embarrassing, as in my culture, receiving a gift of money as an adult is shameful. Wedding gifts are typically home appliances or decorations. Around the age of 20, folks begin discussing whether it's immature to ask for birthday presents.

My girlfriend told me that it was customary to receive red packets filled with money until marriage, at which point I would be expected to begin giving red packets to all the unmarried children in the family.

Her family noticed my bizarre reaction to receiving money from them. I'm grateful she explained that I was not used to this custom. I didn't want them to know that their generosity emasculated me, filled me with shame and made me desperate to never show my face again.

Now, I am married. This year, my wife and I will distribute our own red packets to nieces and nephews — some are little, and some are young adults. I will see the gratitude in their eyes and feel the warmth of their hugs.

It won't be a financial transaction. It will be an expression of a familial bond. I will step into the shoes of Chinese ancestry and add to their ladder.

This summer, I will serve as a groomsman for my older brother's wedding. I will fulfill my traditional duties therein as an implicit approval of his union with my future sister-in-law. Perhaps I will give them a red packet gift. Perhaps traditions aren't so bad after all.

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