I took my children to the mall for ice cream to celebrate my son’s first week of Kindergarten. He asked for chocolate and mint chocolate chip for him, his younger sister, and me to share. As we went to sit, I barely registered that we had passed by an older Asian couple. I didn’t pay them any mind; I’m used to passing by Asians, but they usually pass by on their on business as I do on mine. I am never asked if I can speak Chinese (which I can’t) unless the cashier at an Asian market asks.
My son didn’t want to eat the mint chocolate chip because it wasn’t green. My daughter only wanted the chocolate, but her brother wasn’t willing to share. I was not expecting an older Asian lady to walk up to us and give a quarter to each of my kids.
I grew up in a Chinese American household with an Americanized Chinese mom and very traditionally Chinese dad. To say I was a little confused while growing up would be an understatement. In America, children are taught to never accept something from a stranger. My Chinese culture taught me it was impolite to refuse a gift from an auntie or uncle (AKA an Asian elder). I also grew up really confused about how big my family really was because everyone older than us was an aunt or uncle. I was in high school before I understood some of my aunts and uncles were actually just family friends.
For five years I didn’t give much thought to what kind of culture I would raise my kids with. I had enough trouble trying to get one kid to talk and the other to sleep. Teaching them Chinese traditions was way, way, way back on the burner.
But, that day, I had to make a choice, and I only had until my kids declared themselves done with the ice cream. Would I hand the quarters back or let my kids keep them?
In my Chinese culture, elders would give the children small amounts of money like a quarter or a dollar to wish them wealth, prosperity, and good fortune. It was not polite to refuse or give it back. By the time I was a teenager, I was a tired recipient of $2. My grandmother would hand them out every single time we saw her. While most people might be delighted to receive $2 every couple of weeks, my cousins, siblings, and I actually became kind of tired of it. But mostly because it meant we had to listen to our grandmother tell us how smart and beautiful we were, and that we either needed to eat more or less. There was a good reason for that, but that’s for another story.
If I chose to raise my kids with Chinese traditions, I was going to allow them to keep the quarters.
In America, kids are taught to not accept anything from a stranger because it was usually used as a lure. We were told horror stories of kids who accepted a piece of candy and then were never seen again. We were taught to not even speak to strangers. A stranger offering anything equated to kidnapper and/or rapist and/or murderer. Pretty terrifying for a young child.
If I chose to raise my kids in the American culture, I was going to have them return the quarters.
My kids are 2 and 5. In the long-term, the odds they will even remember this brief experience are slim. Weeks later, they don’t even mention the quarters, and I literally have no idea where they are.
But I still struggled with what to do while I tried to feed them ice cream. I pride myself on being an educated adult, but sometimes the superstitions I was raised with are too overpowering. Could I comfortably refuse the quarters, which were meant to wish wealth, prosperity, and good fortune on my young children? It would be rude to the lady who gave them to my kids. It would also mean I was throwing away her happy wishes for my kids. Then again…never accept anything from a stranger.
I took it as an opportunity to teach my children about half of their heritage. Even though they’ll likely never remember my grandmother, who passed last year, I have no doubt that they will receive little red envelopes from my parents when they’re a little older. Usually given to children for Chinese New Year, they hold the same meaning: a wish for wealth, prosperity, and good fortune. My kids will need to understand this so they can appreciate the gift from their grandparents. It’s part of them and where they come from. As complicated as these traditions have occasionally made my life, I do pride myself on following as many as I can, no matter how superstitious.
Besides, it was an older Asian lady, from my grandmother’s generation, who handed out the coins. I had no doubt that they were given to my kids to wish them wealth, prosperity, and good fortune. They kept the coins, after saying thank you to the lady, and I kept my kids.