Cheap White Guy Confronts Lai See, the Chinese Custom of Giving Money Away

Chinese New Year display in Hong Kong. (Philippe Lopez/Getty Images)

Chinese New Year decorations on display in Hong Kong. (Philippe Lopez/Getty Images)

A few weeks ago, my wife, Wendy, came to me with some troubling news. “Don’t freak,” she said. “But we have to give Lai See for Chinese New Year.”

Lai See, which literally means “Good Luck,” are red envelopes that elders give to juniors. There are lots of different traditions, but in general, married couples give them to unmarried relatives, friends or colleagues.

This might not sound like something to freak about, until you consider that the envelopes are filled with money. 

Typically people slip a HK$20 ($2.86) note in the packet, but for closer relations (a nephew, say, or a goddaughter), the denomination can rise significantly, to HK$100 ($12.90) or more, depending on the relationship. Last week on the mainland, a recently retired Communist party official complained that people no longer give his kids Lai See packets worth 10,000 yuan ($1,603). That’s called “bribery.”

I thought Wendy was joking. I didn’t think people would expect a white guy who’s only lived in Hong Kong for five months to partake in an ancient Chinese custom. No such luck. “I’m Chinese,” she said. “We’re married. People will expect it.”

I don’t like to give money away. I come from a long line of tight-fisted, industrious Pennsylvania Germans. When I lived in New York, I never took a cab, even if it was 2 a.m. and negative seven degrees and I was stuck on 11th Avenue.

Christmas is my family’s most important holiday, and my parents have always been incredibly generous with me, but when it comes to our extended family, we don’t give away cash like people do here. (If we did, we’d definitely claim it on our taxes). Rather we hold an annual gift exchange, in which we spend 10 bucks or less on a gift. Pasta, toilet paper and a gift card to the local gas station are three sample items from our grab bag.

I’m pretty sure I need to see a therapist about my money issues, but I’m too cheap to pay for one, so I’ll just take a stab in the dark and say that it all has something to do with the fact that my generation is just selfish. In New York, friends and I would go Dutch to dinner, bring our own beer to parties and expect our parents to treat us when they visited. Part of this had to do with how expensive it is to live in New York, and part of it is just cultural. My generation doesn’t often do much for other people because we fear that the favor won’t be returned.

So you can imagine how I felt when, a few days before New Year’s Day, Wendy and I withdrew HK$3,000 ($387) from our bank account. As I folded the crisp new HK$20 and HK$100 bills and slipped them into our red envelopes, I felt anxious, like I was on the losing end of a tradition that had nothing to do with me. What was I going to get out of this? I’m married. I’m not going to get any money.

On New Year’s Day, Wendy placed about 100 Lai See in her purse and we set off for her parents’, where we’d spend the day with 20 of her relatives. Because Lai See translates to “Good Luck,” people are sure to carry plenty with them during the holiday. Getting caught empty-handed isn’t just bad form, it’s bad luck. “No Lai See” equals “No Good Luck.”

As we stepped out of the elevator, our doorman, Uncle Lee, stood up from behind his desk, clasped his right hand over his left, and shook them in a traditional greeting. “Kung hei fat choy!” he said. (May you become prosperous!) “Lai See dou loi!” (Lai See come here!) It’s not polite for children to use this rhyme, but jovial Mr. Lee said it with a touch of humor. I think.

I dug out one of the special Lai See we’d prepared for such an occasion. (Like Christmas in New York, it’s the time of year when residents tip the building staff.) Inside was a HK$100 bill.

For all the anxiety I had felt leading up to the holiday, I was practically giddy giving money away. Perhaps it was the wide smile on Uncle Lee’s face, so bright that his wispy eyebrows floated above his head, or the fact that I was participating in the local custom rather than observing it from afar. Or that it was a small gesture of thanks to someone who’s been kind to me since I first arrived.

Kung hei fat choi!” I replied.

“Your Cantonese, very good!” he said.

Sun tai geen hong,” I said. Be healthy.

Over the next few days, I handed out money to the other doormen and every unmarried person I met. Mostly children, but some single adults, too, and parents who’d deposit it in their kids’ college savings accounts. To my surprise, Wendy and I got some Lai See too, from older business associates and relatives. I liked getting money, but it wasn’t the cash that made me happy. It was that everyone was acting generously. Everybody was on the same page.

Later, our friend Olivia would put it in context. “Chinese don’t grow up like Americans,” she said. “We’re not told to put ourselves first, to pursue our dreams at all cost. We have so many obligations other than ourselves. To our family and elders. We want to create a harmonious society. And that means sacrificing a part of yourself for the greater good.” It was such an easy concept—and one I just might try next Christmas.

editorial@observer.com