I’m a Singaporean-born Chinese, but I’ve never attended a reunion dinner or collected ang pows (red packets) in my life.
Before you shake your head at my deprived childhood, let me clarify. My parents raised us in a rather conservative Christian environment and preferred not to deal with the superstitions in Chinese New Year celebrations, which can be hard to reconcile with some of our beliefs. There are also nine kids in my family, so we were probably doing our relatives a favor financially by staying away. (Those super long weekends to do whatever we wanted were awesome, too.)
However, growing up without the trappings of a traditional Chinese upbringing has made my life rather interesting, to say the least. I know a fair bit about Chinese culture and enjoy what I can of it, such as the CNY goodies my siblings bring home from work, but I have never experienced the customs myself. Even my most banana friends are more Chinese than me, by virtue of the Chinese traditions they understand and observe.
You could argue that as an adult now, I can make my own decisions about celebrating the holiday. I technically still qualify (young, unmarried, studying) to collect ang pows. My relatives are generally nice people, and I’m pretty sure they would not deny me ang pows now, just because I haven’t been around to collect them for the past 22 years. Right? (Gulp.)
The real problem is this: having attended so few family gatherings throughout my life, I can barely remember how to address my aunts and uncles on my father’s side, much less keep track of who their spouses and children are. It’s not as bad on my mom’s side because her family is smaller and spends more time with us. But my father has six siblings, and he’s the second youngest. My cousins’ ages range from 30 to 45, and their kids are one or two years my junior.
All this means that I’m stuck in a kind of limbo between generations. I could choose to start celebrating Chinese New Year now and collect some pocket money over the holiday, but that also means sitting through hours of excruciating conversations over dinner. As much as my friends try to convince me that the ang pow is worth all that torture, the introverted side of me is not inclined to believe them.
After all, I should be there to get to know my family, not to leech money off them. And if I loathe the idea of being there so much that ang pows are the only reason to attend, I definitely don’t deserve the money.
However, there is one thing that may eventually force me to change my mind about reunions. It’s the prospect of my wedding day turning into my biggest nightmare, when I have to walk among my relatives, calling each one by name and chatting with them as we take photos together. The horror if I forget someone’s name or rank in the family… I have seriously considered eloping or getting married overseas just to avoid that. That’s how terrified I am of the idea.
I guess the only way to prevent that from happening would be to start attending reunions and get to know my relatives better at least a few years before I plan to get married. Even if by that time I’m too old to collect ang pows, at least I’ll have mental insurance against the day I have to greet each one of them by name at my wedding. There will be no room for error then, and no amount of money in the red packets that day will console me over the subsequent mortification if I mess up.