I grew up in an environment where my family never really expressed their love verbally.
Asian tough(?) love
Like many other Asian families, my parents were never the sort to shower me with compliments or encouragement. Every now and then, they would tell me things like “do your best is enough”, but there was never any mollycoddling when it came to failure or mistakes (“see la!! I already told you don’t go and do that!!” *angry angry angry*).
We also haven’t been in the habit of throwing grand celebrations or giving gifts when it comes to birthdays (at least as far as I remember, not since after my 12th birthday or something). We chiefly send one another texts in the family WhatsApp group chat (my parents are particularly fond of using Bitmoji) and then go for dinner together sometime later in the week.
Which is perfectly fine by me, don’t get me wrong.
It’s about the gesture more than it is about the money
But it is through their little everyday gestures — my father offering to pick me up from work (and school, back then), my mother cooking an extra fried egg for me or packing me a sandwich for breakfast — that I am reminded of my parents’ love and concern for me.
It’s the same for me when it comes to expressing love and concern for them. I always found it a bit weird for me to say “I love you”, or “I care about you” out loud; thinking about having to say this to my parents already feels awkward.
Instead, unsurprisingly, I express my love in nonverbal ways. For instance, I’m the type to give a portion of my monthly salary to my parents (like many other Singaporeans, I guess).
I must clarify that displaying concern for our loved ones cannot, and should not, be reduced to material terms. But giving gifts (money included) has become one very big (and perhaps very Asian?) way of telling someone that we care about them.
I would even venture that “giving back” has perhaps even become a measure (rightly or wrongly, but that’s another story altogether) of how good a son or daughter one is. As someone who constantly worries about being a good daughter, I empathise with anyone who has ever felt these self-doubts.
However (and I say this with a mild sigh of relief), I have also grown to realise that it’s less about the money than it is about the gesture of giving.
And this is precisely why I decided to start giving my parents angpows at Chinese New Year.
It wasn't because I was trying to “repay” them financially for bringing me up. And unlike the monthly contributions from my salary, I didn't give the angpow with the intention of offsetting household expenses.
Rather, I did this for my parents as a way of letting them know that I am thinking about them, and care enough to do something to put a smile on their face. In whatever small way I know how.
Giving my parents an angpow even though I am not obliged to
I remember that morning clearly.
I went to the cupboard where all the red packets were kept, carefully chose two (a bright red one for my father, and a purple one for my mother) from the bunch, and slot some money into each.
In my family, what happens on the morning of the first day of Chinese New Year is my parents and I (I’m an only child, by the way) would exchange new year greetings (typical).
Usually, the greetings are exchanged in the living room, either before or after breakfast.
They would, by a custom my family parents and grandparents have always had, also each give me a red packet (also typical).
But last year, instead of just offering my well wishes to them, I decided to prepare a red packet for each of my parents as well (not so typical).
And here’s the thing — according to Chinese customs, I technically don’t have to since I’m unmarried. But I still chose to anyway.
For the record: singles don’t actually have to give angpows to their parents.
From my conversations with my peers, it is generally agreed that singles don’t give their parents angpows (unless, of course, their family believes in the custom that children should start giving parents angpows the moment they start working).
And you’ll find quite a few articles stating pretty clearly that angpows are traditionally handed out by married couples to their parents and other children.
So in sharing my decision to start giving angpows during CNY, I realise that this might be setting a challenging precedent for other unmarried Chinese folk.
There exist many other ways, of course, but for me, doing this is my way of telling my parents that I cherish them, without having to fret over how to say that I do.
And doing it was a wonderful experience too — and for my parents as well, it seems, seeing that the response from them was unexpectedly moving.
Their response far exceeded what I could have imagined
When I presented my parents with their angpows last year, my mother went “Wah, I also have ah?” or something to that effect, and then pointed it out to my father, who asked if he was going to get one as well.
And when I gave his to him, I remember him trying to act like it was no big deal (“oh okay, thank you”).
But I am fairly certain they were pleasantly surprised and maybe even deeply appreciative of my gesture, going by the photo of my angpow my mother posted on her Facebook to show it off to her friends.
Several months after Chinese New Year, I also noticed the angpow I gave my mother tucked in the pages of a calendar in her room.
She had specially kept it in her bedside dresser — I’m not even sure she took the money out of it.
For me, knowing that my gesture was indeed appreciated — may I say, even cherished — made all the difference.
Top photo by Joshua Lee