Of Treasure and Angpaos

Of Treasure and Angpaos

Written by: Lemuel Teo (Photo by: Ronald Lim)

CNY lessons from my grandma

Chinese New Year (CNY): a festival filled with sumptuous food, endless house visitations, collecting angpaos (red packets), and the exchanging of traditional greetings. For some people, it is about doing the right ritual at the right time to maximise the luck they would possess for the new year. For others, it is the only time of the year where they see certain relatives.

Personally, this CNY would be slightly different. After an accident last year, my paternal grandmother shifted in to stay with my family so that she could be better cared for. So I would expect several visits from relatives coming to wish her a happy new year — in previous years, my house would be rather quiet as my family and I would head out to someone else’s house.

Ever since shifting in, my grandmother’s experience and perspective on life has taught me numerous lessons. She would often tell me, “家有一老,如有一宝” (having an elder in your home is akin to possessing a piece of treasure), so I had to cherish her because she is like a gem. Another one of her favourite lines is “家合万事兴,” which means: when a family is united, everything is well. To her, family is of the highest priority, and not wealth or material possessions. She would frequently take time to lovingly hold my arm and bless me in the name of Jesus as I step out of the house.

Two weeks back, with CNY drawing nearer, she asked if I could bring her out to shop for festive paraphernalia. Given her age and relative immobility, travelling to crowded places can be inconvenient for her, hence she is dependent on someone bringing her out. I was initially reluctant to bring her out as it meant I had to rearrange my meetings. But I decided that it was important to prioritise spending time with the gem I have at home. We, therefore, made a short trip to Bedok from Pasir Ris on a weekday.

She excitedly went about choosing CNY snacks to buy. She even tried to bargain for a lower price on a pair of pants she wanted. More importantly, she wanted to buy couplets so she could put them up in our house and she beckoned me to choose a nice one.

Half in jest, I showed her one which said “恭喜发财” (be happy and prosperous), and another saying “财源广进” (in-flow of money and treasure). She flashed me a dismissive look with a wave of her arms. “No good, no good,” she said. “How about something like “出入平安” (peace in your coming and going)? It has a better meaning.” It seemed to me that my grandmother valued peace over prosperity. Maybe with all that she has experienced in life, she’s realised that peace within the family is more important than accumulating wealth.

Within Christian circles, I’ve observed that we tend to favour “peaceful” greetings over more “prosperous” ones. For example, instead of greeting our family and friends with, “恭喜发财 (be happy and prosperous) / 金玉滿堂 (may gold and jade fill the halls)” , we would say, “出入平安 (peace in your coming and going) / 主恩满溢 (overflow of God’s grace).”

It might seem that we have a disdain for prosperity or are legalistically against “good luck.” I used to wonder if some of us, Christians, were too arrogant or condescending toward other beliefs? Why shouldn’t I just wish my businessman-relative good luck during CNY? Were we over-spiritualising traditional Chinese culture in a bid to appear “Christian”? Were we trying too hard to make use of the time we have during CNY to evangelise our relatives?

I finally found an answer when my grandmother sat me down one day and read John 1:16 to me:

从他丰满的恩典里,我们都领受了,而且恩上加恩。 (‭约翰福音‬ ‭1‬:‭16‬ CUNPSS)

For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. (‭John‬ ‭1‬:‭16‬ ESV)

As she was reading this verse, a smile emerged on her face. She re-read the words “丰满” (fullness) and “恩上加恩” (grace upon grace) multiple times. She was so delighted reading that verse as she cupped her palms to her chest, smiling. It dawned on me that my grandmother was so contented with God’s fullness and grace in her life.

She told me that God has been really good to her. He has blessed her richly as she had single-handedly raised eight children while balancing multiple jobs; he blessed her with a place to stay and a good Christian community in her church. As she reads her Bible and prays, she feels the presence of God. To her, every day is a God-ordained day as she experiences God’s grace.

Maybe this was why she wanted a couplet with a “better meaning.” For my grandmother, CNY is not about bringing in more luck, but it is a time to count her blessings. She often tells us that she has lived well: her children have grown up and her grandchildren are doing well, hence her contentment. Every CNY is a chance to thank God for the peace within the family because: 家合万事兴 (when a family is united, everything is well).

Perhaps, this is why some Christians change their traditional CNY greetings to grace-inspired ones — we are not being condescending or obnoxious, but we are grateful for the goodness of God in our lives! While financial stability is important, we recognise that earthly riches pale in comparison to the presence and grace of God. I guess this was why Paul said that “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6 NIV).

Just this week, my sister shared with me that this would be the last year she was going to be receiving angpaos as she is going to get married soon. In her lament about not receiving as much money in future and the imminent need to spend money on big-purchase items she was led to think about how building relationships is more important than collecting money. She should not have to worry about future financial expenditure. Instead, she should focus on God’s grace and peace — For from His fullness we have all received grace (John 1:16). She could then shift her focus off accepting angpaos to building relationships.

As Christians, we are indeed beneficiaries of God’s grace. We have experienced His goodness and presence in our lives. We do not need to pursue certain formulae to maximise our luck. Jesus said, “Don’t worry about such things. These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers all over the world, but your Father already knows your needs” (Luke 12:29–30 NLT).

This CNY, I am going to be intentional about reflecting on His goodness in my life. The long weekend gives me the time to slow down from the daily grind of life and take stock of where I am. I want to thank God for my family and His providence of health and peace.

May I encourage you to mull over God’s goodness and blessing in your life. Let us be thankful for His presence and grace. As we greet our relatives and friends, let us purposefully use grace-inspired greetings this CNY. The greetings we use could provide a starting point to talk about our relationship with Jesus!

LEMUEL enjoys good conversations over a cup of kopitiam kopi. He connects with God while playing the piano and is frequently in awe of His creation—sunsets, sea breezes, and tropical downpours. View his attempts at capturing interesting or beautiful moments @lemuelteo.

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