• I grew up knowing that generosity and hospitality in providing food or paying for meals was an honour. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
I grew up knowing that generosity and hospitality in providing food or paying for meals was an honour, and also fun - you never knew who would outsmart who, and manage to pay before anyone else noticed!
By
Bridget Harilaou

31 Jan 2019 - 8:44 AM  UPDATED 12 Feb 2021 - 10:22 AM

We all know the familiar scene: two or more Asian parents fighting over who will pay the bill for dinner. At six years old, I was already sneaking around to snatch the bill right out of their hands and deliver it to my mother. I grew up knowing that generosity and hospitality in providing food or paying for meals was an honour, and also fun - you never knew who would outsmart who, and manage to pay before anyone else noticed!

Fresh Off The Boat, an Asian-American family sitcom set in Florida perfectly encapsulates this in a polite but serious duel, in which neither Jessica (the family’s mother) or her brother-in-law Gene, will let go of the bill.

Obviously this tug-of-war was visually hilarious but the true comedy lies in its relatability to the many Asian families who have watched people fight to the death over who would pay for dinner.

Around the dinner table we wish for more wealth to everyone in the coming year, and from my interpretation not just in money, but in all the things that make life wealthy.

Paying the bill at a restaurant is symbolic of so much more than money. In Chinese culture, paying for something communicates respect, gratitude and kindness, and illustrates how much you value your relationship with a person. Food is also an incredibly important part of sharing love and life with your friends and family. Cooking, feeding or eating with someone shows a sense of kinship and care, and as cartoonist Shing Yin Khor wrote, “feeding someone I hate is a lie.” So you can imagine how big of a deal paying money for food is.

The role of money is especially central to special occasions like Lunar New Year. Growing up, I used to look forward to the small red envelopes of money I knew I would receive. My cousins and I would run around screeching âng-pau-âng-pau until our parents finally handed it over at the end of the meal. For me, âng-pau was not about what I would spend the money on (I never really thought about that) but more about the feeling of abundance that came from the gift.

Ironically, the generosity and prosperity of spending money for others goes hand-in-hand with the taboo around discussing financial matters.

Money is not only gratitude or prosperity - it’s about securing a safe future. 

Growing up, this was very evident in my family; there was secrecy around our housing situation, how much it cost, even the price of my piano lessons, and when my parents finally revealed to me the state of their finances, I felt like my childhood was full of lies.

It is still taboo to be open about your financial situation in the broader Indonesian community and with extended family. I am thankful that as an adult, my parents trust me with the intimate knowledge of their finances.

It’s meant that for me, money is not only gratitude or prosperity - it’s about securing a safe future for my parents in their old-age when Sydney rent is only sky-rocketing, the pension age is increasing, public housing is being sold-off and my own job prospects are increasingly casualised and precarious. It’s an overwhelming situation and truly drives home to me that the taboo about money in Asian cultures does not serve us well when we need help.

Since becoming a full-time worker, I have made a concerted effort to support my parents financially, paying for my mother’s medicine, flight and accommodation to weddings, and Lunar New Year dinner. I have felt the dynamic of our relationship shifting as we balance the taboo associated with asking for money and the unspoken love I can show by supporting them. This money means so much more than ‘cash’, it is about reciprocating everything they have sacrificed so that I could pursue my passions, and have every opportunity in life, for which I am so thankful. Lunar New Year gives me just one more opportunity to express that thanks.

Lunar New Year gives me just one more opportunity to express that thanks. We celebrate our abundance.

Despite all this, I know my mother feels bad relying on me. When I moved out as they downsized to a smaller apartment, she cried for months every time she saw me, even when I told her I had always been independent and loved living out of home. The tension between carer and the cared for is a line that is shifting between us, and even though that is only natural, it is still fraught and exacerbated by the double-act we put on to keep up appearances in front of extended family.

Ultimately, Lunar New Year gives us a moment in time to be generous and giving, with food, time and yes, money - from the bill to little red envelopes. While the celebration is imbued with complex family relationships, calculated secrets and taboo topics, at Lunar New Year, we celebrate our abundance. Around the dinner table we wish for more wealth to everyone in the coming year, and from my interpretation not just in money, but in all the things that make life wealthy: family, friends, a delicious meal, and another year of life under our belts. Gong Xi Fa Cai.

Check out the new SBS Chinese site for LNY themed-content #LNY21

Bridget Harilaou is a freelance writer. You can follow Bridget on Twitter @FightLoudly. 

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