More red pocket fun

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As I wrote in my previous article on giving red pockets, the Chinese New Year (hereafter 'CNY') lai see custom is great in some ways, but a bit of a socio-cultural minefield in others. Even after getting through 16 CNY's in Hong Kong, 11 of them in which I've been married and therefore responsible for giving out red pockets, there are still dilemmas to be confronted, and lessons to be learned. So here are three more . . .

The Denomination Designation Dilemma
Once you actually get down to stuffing your red pockets in preparation for CNY, you must confront a fundamental problem. You'll likely want to give different people different amounts in their red pockets, i.e. close family members and friends will rate more than the standard minimum of HKD20 you give to acquaintances, infrequently-encountered service personnel, and so on. To keep straight how much you're giving to whom, you'll likely decide to use different kinds of red pockets so you don't have to peek inside them all the time to see how much they contain as you're giving them out (bad form, that!). Given my rather literal and limited brain, this means I find it easier to put small bills in small, dull red pockets, and big bills in large, splashy ones. This works fine most of the time.

The problems start when you're at a large family gathering, and several other families are present. Yes, you're going to give out red pockets to all the kids/unmarrieds there, but some you have designated for rather substantial sums, while others fall back into the great $20 mass. And once you start giving out pockets, you've got to go around the room and finish the task -- it's not kosher at all to give some kids their pockets, while others stand there with starving puppy eyes.

But kids are (generally) not idiots, and their little brains are just as literal as mine: as you hand out your size-sorted pockets, the ones getting the pathetic little $20 numbers are likely to start whimpering, or blurt out 'Uncle gave me a little red pocket but he gave Cousin a big one!", or something even more disquieting.

So what do you do? I've seen people try to get around this problem by just using the same type of pocket for everybody. I've also seen these same people get ready to hand out the pockets, get a stricken look on their faces, then retreat to a bedroom to sort one-by-one through all their red pockets to re-establish how much is in each!

You might also try reverse psychology, i.e. putting the big cash in dowdy little pockets, and using veritable billboards of holiday good cheer for your HKD20s. Two problems here: First, are you going to be cool enough, in the heat of the moment, to trust yourself to implement this strategy flawlessly? I know I'm far too likely to revert to the obvious when the pressure's on. Second, assuming you do get it right, just think of what you're doing to all those kids who run home, open the huge red pockets they've been obsessing about all day, only to find limp $20 notes. I'm choking up right now feeling their pain.

You can also just brazen through the whole thing, and unapologetically give some kids nicer pockets than others. In the long run, I think this is the best bet: Children, an announcement: The world is not fair. The end.

The Myrmidons Multiplication Muddle
Here's something you'll notice within the first two or three days of CNY: your building's doorman/doorlady, and many of the other service people in your life, will suddenly change. You'll see lots of fresh, smiling new faces! Yes, some of them are no doubt filling in for regulars who are taking leave, but let's face it: most are rotating around to absorb the greatest possible number of red pockets. The solution here is easy: for Mrs Tall and me, if we haven't seen you in your post before, tough luck. It's just a smile and a 'Gung Hei Fat Choi' for you!

The Colleague's-Kid Conundrum
Here's a good one. One of your co-workers (almost always a see lai [i.e. a housewifey type]) decides, spontaneously of course, to bring her kids to the office, since they just happen to be on CNY holiday from school anyway, and of course since visiting Mommy's workplace -- and going around the whole office to blurt out 'Happy New Year" to every single one of Mommy's coworkers -- is such an enlightening and inspiring experience. Why, it's almost an internship, isn't it?

Whew, let me cool off for a minute.

Of course, this lai see-solicitation ploy is perfectly transparent to everyone involved, including the poor child. But there's no wiggle room here at all, really: you must hand over a pocket to maintain both good form and office peace. The good news is that since you're at work you're obligated to give only one pocket, and it most definitely can be one of those dull little ones.

So Happy New Year, everybody! And the best news is that in just a few days we can forget all about red pockets -- for another year, at least.