Two Quarters From a Stranger

Two Quarters From a Stranger

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.



11 thoughts on “Two Quarters From a Stranger”

  • Kat I was about to skip this post and to be honest, like a custom, pay my regards by simply liking it without reading (which I seldom do) but really glad that I stayed put. It has all the ingredients of a post that’s interesting, introspective and has an underlying message.
    So very true that you can neither ignore nor escape traditions. With time we evolve and formulate strategies for a peaceful and protected existence. At the same time some customs and traditions solve the same purpose at times too. As always one of the most relaxed and thought provoking post I came across.

    • To be honest, I write these kinds of posts more for me than anything else. I like having a place where I can document important moments in my life and reflect on them, though it’s always a plus when someone else can take something away from it or simply enjoy it. So I really appreciate your words, and I’m honored you took a few minutes to read my post. I know there always seems to be more to read and more to do than anyone can possibly have time for. I love the traditions of my heritage, but culture clashes become inevitable. As a mom, sometimes it makes life more confusing, but I hope to reach the point where I can formulate a strategy for a peaceful and protected existence (what lovely words!).

  • From your story I gather that the question of cultural background is not really sorted out on your case. Neither for us. But why don’t you take the best of both worlds? With respect to the old ones, you can tell your children to be careful with non-asian people offering money. Maybe that’s OK. Maybe you need to explain them what “asian” means, but you can try to explain it (as I do) focusing on lesser details, like the hair colour or the eyes. They know asian people are “different” but this is not meaning, of course, they do behave all the same way 🙂

    • No, it hasn’t. It’s only just started. I don’t think my parents found a balance between both worlds, but I hope to. At their ages, my kids are very much blind to race and ethnicity. A person is a person to them and they don’t yet know how to differentiate. But you’re right. I do need to start teaching them, especially as they get older and start to notice differences. I suppose you could say this was a wake up call.

  • So, here is the thing….I think when an older person does that, regardless of the culture, they want to do something nice. If I am with my children, I let them take the quarter or the candy (though I don’t always let them eat the candy because..who knows, right?) Where I live people are rude a lot. They don’t notice children so if someone stops, notices a child and wants to do something nice for them, I let them. It makes the other person feel good that they are noticing the child and sometimes the child feels nice knowing they were paid attention to. To balance that out I tell my children to politely decline if I’m not with them or walk away if they are alone somewhere and a person in a car pulls up offering those things. I’m rarely not where my children are when it comes to strangers, so luckily I don’t have to worry about that too much (yet). Very interesting post about the Chinese culture and the challenges of how to balance that with your American upbringing!

    • That’s interesting! I grew up in the suburbs and now live in a too large city, so older people don’t really take the time to notice anyone unless someone is rude or disrespectful to them. I think the only thing I’ve ever received from an older person was a tissue when I sneezed. Hopefully, that means I don’t actually have to worry to much about my kids being offered things, but that’s a good point about it making the giver feel good. I suppose it’s all about just being cautious, and I like the idea of having the child decline when they’re not with you.

  • I’m with your commenters. Heritage is important. -as a side note, I didn’t know this about Chinese culture.

    I teach all my kids about Stranger Danger, but also teach them to tell kindly old adults, “Thank you” when they give them a shiny quarter or dollar.

    • It seems like parents of today are me flexible. When I was a kid, it was a strict run away from strangers. But there always seems to be an exception when it comes to older people. And I suppose there’s no harm when the kids aren’t alone.

  • What a beautiful tradition. I understand the struggle and love your solution. It’s wonderful that your kids will be taught the rich traditions in their heritage! (Sorry this comment is soooo late. Just now catching up on life after the crazy of the last several weeks =)

    • Thank you. I just hope my kids can appreciate it one day. Living in a Western country, it’s not always easy to hang onto seemingly contrary traditions.

      Oh, gosh, I can’t believe you went through so many posts! There are quite a few.

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