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Chinese New Year was once a time for me to look forward to collecting red packets stuffed with cash, and gleefully count my haul at the end of each day. How the tables have turned.
Getting married drew a dividing line between when Chinese New Year was all fun and games, and when it suddenly was not. Previously, all I had to worry about was whether that uncle or auntie who gave me a measly S$2 red packet the year before was going to repeat the same indignity.
Post-marriage, I found myself in the shoes of my erstwhile maligned relatives, met with the knowing looks of children and younger single relatives during visits, furiously flipping through my angbao stash while wondering if I’d need to make yet another ATM run.
It might seem a little harsh for me to condemn the giving experience – after all, I was a beneficiary not too long ago. But being on the other side and abruptly viewed as little more than an ABM (Ang Bao Machine), has given me pause.
There’s no way around it; I’ve had to face the hard truth that I’ve morphed into the Chinese New Year equivalent of the Grinch who despised Christmas, aka the CNY Grump.
Angbao giving is an outdated tradition
How many actually know why we dole out red packets every year? One legend explains that the Eight Immortals took the form of coins, wrapped in red paper and placed under a child’s pillow, to ward off a demon. Another origin story recounts how the Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty used gold and silver coins as charms to protect his baby son. In other words, the gifted money was a good luck/supernatural charm to protect young children from harm.
These days, the ones who really need protection are the angbao givers, I’d say, who need to contend with an uncertain economy, work stress, and the rising cost of living.
Not to mention, the expectations of kids and their parents whom they meet perhaps once a year. I should know; the main information I registered about relatives encountered during CNY was whether they’d given me an angbao and whether they were a generous giver or not. Any other details were thrown to the wind.
The Chinese New Year cliché is that you’re bound to meet older relatives who ask the same probing questions as last year, ironically counterbalanced by the cliché that you expect angbaos from those very same relatives. The angbao is practically the transaction fee for entertaining (well-meaning but awkward) nosiness.
What’s more, the tradition has taken on its own brand of frenzy in Singapore. People demand and queue for new notes, to the point that the Monetary Authority of Singapore ends up destroying most of the 100 million pieces issued as they exceed circulation demand, resulting in carbon emissions that our rapidly heating planet just can’t afford.
And, at the end of the day, angbao-giving is just plain costly. After guess-timating the year’s market rate, and deciding on amounts based on each recipient’s relation to me, age and degree of closeness, there’s the drawing and packing of stacks upon stacks of cash to gift elders, siblings, children, and younger relatives. Having splurged only a couple of months ago on Christmas presents, my bank balance can’t take this additional blow.
Tips to avoid giving CNY angbaos
I’ve given some thought to this troublesome practice and realised that, hey, there are ways around it. Just as the Grinch stole Christmas from Whoville, I can connive to keep those angbaos out of reach from their potential recipients.
Avoid visiting at the same time as younger relatives
Finally, there is some use for those pesky safe management restrictions (besides, you know, preventing COVID-19 transmission)! I’ve never been more grateful to be able to use the ‘five visitors to a household’ rule to space out my visit from families with children or younger singles. After all, I need to do my part as a law-abiding citizen, don’t I? And since I didn’t meet them, I needn’t gift them.
Receive angbaos from older relatives first
Bless the older generation – despite their kids/grandkids being all grown up, gainfully employed and even married, some of them still persist in pressing red packets on us year after year. While I appreciate their generous sentiments, how useful can their gifts be when I’m expected to give them money too?
There’s a simple solution: I make sure to receive their angbaos first, then tuck the same amount of cash (and a little bit extra) into my own packets to gift them in return.
I can express my sincere thanks, and everyone walks away happy and as deficit-free as possible.
State the plain facts to your siblings
It’s no surprise that your younger siblings would want to cash in on your status as a Married Person. What accompanies that status, though, is a tonne of financial obligations – repayments for housing and possibly a car, covering household utilities and expenses, etc. So I don’t think there’s any shame in letting your siblings know that your finances won’t permit you to spare them an angbao; if anything, it’ll be a token sum. At the same time, you can remind them of all the other gifts and occasions you splash out on for them during the year. Ultimately, your siblings should value your well-being, and I’m sure they’d understand.
‘Forget’ to transfer e-angbaos
With everything going digital and PayNow being an accepted and familiar part of daily life, you can capitalise on digital payment systems to get out of an angbao or two. Let your would-be giftees know that you only give out e-angbaos, and that you’ll make the transfers later. If they don’t bother to furnish you with their handphone number or other details needed for a transfer, it’s entirely plausible that it’ll ‘slip your mind’ to ultimately wire them the cash.
Replace angbao gifting with other meaningful interactions
Instead of making interactions with relatives all about swapping money for answers to personal questions, I think it makes more sense to try to build relationships with them throughout the year. Getting to know your extended family and their children better can also help you understand their circumstances and needs for more personalised gifting.
You can respect your elders, not just by giving them angbaos, but by treating them to meals and experiences that they might not otherwise spend on. And when it comes to your younger siblings, if it’s ultimately still cash that they’d appreciate the most, you can gift that during other occasions such as their birthdays and Christmas – allowing you to stagger your expenses instead of giving away a huge chunk of income during Chinese New Year to all and sundry.
Chinese New Year may emphasise prosperity and fortune, but as its self-declared Grump I say that we needn’t blindly follow its every practice if that places us in a difficult spot financially, or feels insincere relationally. I think we can still embrace the values of gathering with family, marking fresh beginnings, and hoping for better things to come, even if we don’t give out any angbaos, or do so more selectively.
Banking in your angbaos sure was satisfying when you were on the receiving end! You can still get a thrill from making deposits through reaping your account’s benefits. Compare the best savings accounts offering vouchers, cash rewards and attractive interest rates that will help grow your nest egg.
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