4:59pm

Fri February 8, 2013
Asia

Show Me The Money In Your Lunar New Year Envelope

Originally published on Sun April 7, 2013 8:06 pm

Many Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and other Asian immigrant families are preparing to celebrate the Lunar New Year by filling small envelopes with money.

Exchanging cash gifts with relatives and friends is an annual holiday tradition that can test one's cultural knowledge and, sometimes, bank account.

Allen Kwai, 36, and Debbie Dai, 31, first met a decade ago during church choir practice in New York City's Chinatown. They finally tied the knot last October.

In traditional Chinese culture, that means they're now adults, and with adulthood comes certain financial responsibilities, including giving out money for Lunar New Year.

"We have church friends' kids and co-workers' children to give [Lunar New Year envelopes]," Dai says.

"And a lot of unmarried people, too!" her husband adds.

Thanksgiving Plus Christmas

For Kwai, Lunar New Year is Thanksgiving and Christmas wrapped into one. It brings together relatives they haven't seen all year for a Thanksgiving-like feast.

And, he says, "It's Christmas because the kids get money!"

The question facing the newlyweds is, exactly how much money should they give for the Lunar New Year?

It's a question Helen Koh, executive director of New York City's Museum of Chinese in America, has discussed with friends and colleagues who celebrate Lunar New Year.

"It can range from $10 to $20, maybe $50," explains Koh, who says she's even heard of Lunar New Year envelopes with just $1.

Koh says it all depends on who's giving and who's receiving — and, of course, how deep your pockets are.

All In The Numbers

Still, combine money with family and holiday rituals, and things can get awkward, especially across different generations.

"Anytime when these traditions come up," says Peggy Moy Mark, 34, a second-generation Chinese immigrant living in Chicago, "I'm always really nervous of whether I'm going to get it right."

Mark wasn't sure which dollar bills to put in her first round of Lunar New Year envelopes. But she knew the number matters, and she knew exactly whom to call for answers — her mother.

Doris Moy, Mark's mother, says in Chinese culture, giving and receiving money in even amounts is generally believed to bring good luck.

But she cautions, "We never use number four."

The number four, spoken in Chinese using a different tone, can easily sound like "to die" — not the kind of message you would want to send to a loved one at the beginning of a new year.

A better option, Moy says, would be the number eight, which in Chinese culture brings good fortune.

Saving Face

For their first Lunar New Year as newlyweds, Kwai and Dai have budgeted $500 for cash gifts to about 50 children, plus friends and family.

"I don't want to give too much to set a bad precedent," Kwai says. "But I also don't want to give too little [because] I don't want [relatives] to be like, 'Hey, cousin Allen is so cheap!' "

Kwai promises if you're close to him, he'll put a little extra in your envelope.

But he says, "If you're not, sorry, buddy!"

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Sunday marks the start of the Lunar New Year, and here in the U.S., many Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and other Asian immigrant families are preparing to celebrate by filling small envelopes with cash. It goes to relatives and friends. But how much money? NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has the story on the calculus of gift giving.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Meet Allen and Debbie. They live in New York City. And they first met a decade ago.

DEBBIE DAI: In church.

ALLEN KWAI: Yeah, we actually met in choir practice.

WANG: They finally tied the knot last October, and in traditional Chinese culture, that means they're now adults. And with adulthood comes certain financial responsibilities, like giving out money for Lunar New Year.

DAI: We have church friends, kids and co-workers, children to give, yeah.

KWAI: A lot of unmarried people too.

WANG: It sounds like you have to budget for this, maybe.

KWAI: I know.

(LAUGHTER)

KWAI: And we just had the wedding too.

(LAUGHTER)

WANG: For Allen Kwai, Lunar New Year is Thanksgiving and Christmas wrapped into one. It brings together relatives you haven't seen all year for a Thanksgiving-like feast and...

KWAI: It's Christmas because the kids get, you know, money.

(LAUGHTER)

NEENAH SATIJA, BYLINE: So the question facing Allen and his wife Debbie Dai is exactly how much money should they give for the Lunar New Year? Helen Koh directs New York City's Museum of Chinese in America.

HELEN KOH: You know, it can range from $10 to $20, maybe 50, even $1, I've heard.

WANG: But combine money with family and holiday rituals and things can get awkward. Peggy Moy Mark lives in Chicago.

PEGGY MOY MARK: I'm always really nervous of whether I'm going to get it right.

WANG: You don't want to fail the exam?

MARK: No, Confucius is watching, so...

(LAUGHTER)

WANG: Peggy wasn't sure which bills to put in her first round of Lunar New Year envelopes, but she knew the number matters. And she knew exactly who to call for answers: her mother.

DORIS MOY: The number four, we never use number four.

WANG: Peggy's mother, Doris Moy, says the number four, when spoken in Chinese, sounds kind of like to die. Newlywed Allen Kwai says he and his wife have budgeted $500 for cash gifts to about 50 children, plus friends and family.

KWAI: I don't want to give too much to set a bad precedent, but I also don't want to give too little because I don't want to be like, hey, cousin Allen is so cheap.

WANG: Allen promises if you're close to him, he'll put a little extra in your envelope. But if you're not, he says, sorry, buddy. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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