At first glance, these red envelopes seem like ordinary pieces of paper with some colorful words and designs printed on them, but these “hong bao,” as they are called in Chinese, are perhaps my only physical reminder of my Chinese heritage. Their small dimensions, three inches by seven and a half inches, and bright red color, make the envelopes rather conspicuous. The golden colored drawings and words give them a sense of importance. Like most Americans, when I see these red envelopes I assume there is some meaning behind their exchange during holidays but fail to grasp the purpose. The tradition of giving money inside a red envelope like these during celebrations is not lost, but its meaning, whatever it may be, has eluded both me and my family. Nevertheless, I recall that when I was still young, every Chinese New Year my family and extended family would get together and the children would wait in anticipation for their “gift” after the meal. It amuses me that the pursuit of money and opportunity in the immigrant community led my family to abandon most cultural traditions, but it is also money that preserved the tradition of the “hong bao.” The increasingly larger sums of money given each year reflect the rising status of my family, and serve as a reminder that my parents journey to America with their own parents was worthwhile.
– Steven Wang