nother new year: With the fanfare of the Gregorian one out of the way, celebrations of the Chinese New Year can be heard — sounds of firecrackers, dragon dances, the beauty contest, the fashion show, the grand parade, and of course, people exchanging the ever-popular Gung Hay Fat Choy. No doubt, the Chinese are fond of saying it. But non-Chinese speakers, too, are catching on. Former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein has articulated it with the flair of a native speaker. Bob Hope was heard pronouncing it with the cutest of accents. However, what does Gung Hay Fat Choy really mean?
Translated verbatim, the greeting is “congratulations on prospering in money.” Notice that the greeting is congratulatory. This is something native speakers may not be aware of. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a congratulation as an expression of an acknowledgment of something already achieved. Literally, Gung Hay Fat Choy is more than just a wish or desire, or a hope or belief. It presupposes that you already have it made, for which congratulations are due. It follows, therefore, that you are supposed to be pretty well-to-do.
But the trick of the age-old compliment doesn’t just stop there: a kid saying Gung Hay Fat Choy to you may sometimes playfully tell you to come across with lai see (money in red envelopes).
I used to think that kids are kids, and probably they are still fresh from their October trick-or-treat spirits. However, I am surprised that sometimes even grown-ups too will want lai see for Gung Hay Fat Choy! Since grown-ups do not often go trick-or-treating like little kids, their otherwise playful act can only reflect more adult ways.
In any case, I have come to the conclusion that people, kids and non-kids alike, have but the same thing in mind, and that is money. But why is Gung Hay Fat Choy a precursor to money? If you checked into the underlying attitude of the greeting, you may find a side statement like this: “Now that you’ve got it made, and I am offering my congratulations, I know you wouldn’t mind trimming off a few bucks for me.”
Exploitative? Underhanded? Possibly, as some people have said it; but this New Year practice has been cheerfully observed for centuries! Any ulterior motives that may surface are squashed and expunged from the mind as folks willingly place the red envelope into the hands of their young ones.
Within families of relatives and circles of acquaintances, married folks, or those who would just go with the flow, will carry with them a lot of lai see to give out. Of course, kids are most often the beneficiaries. Adults of the younger generation give to their children and in turn receive from older folks. Sometimes, in a social gathering of friends, a rich and generous reveler may get so carried away with his festive mood that anybody in the group may unexpectedly become a recipient.
The amount of money in the red envelope varies with the giver. You may get a buck or two, fives, ten, or sometimes twenties, but seldom hundreds. You can never be sure until you receive and open an envelope. A word of caution for the first timer: If you are used to opening your Christmas present up front, be advised that doing it with your lai see is a faux pas. It is believed that lai see is a symbol of good luck and good will. Such values should always come first in a traditional setting, and keeping the envelopes intact in front of your elders is a sign of courtesy and will add to the New Year atmosphere.
Those who savor the essence of the custom know there is more to it than the money. To them, it is the new year atmosphere that counts. It doesn’t matter whether or not they have it made; they want to believe that in any case, prosperity has come to them. Hearing the compliments from their kids as well as friends and relatives therefore makes them feel good. When they blissfully hand out lai see to their young ones, they reward themselves with a reinforcement of prosperity.
As long as this New Year custom is sustained with the inherent wisdom of Gung Hay Fat Choy, the kids will always get a little more in their pocket money during the New Year. They play games with the money and put it in their piggy banks. The adults will always foster their feelings of prosperity, as their renewed hopes and wishes continue to grow in the rich and reassuring atmosphere of a new beginning.
Although the Asian and Western views do not always agree, I think they see eye to eye in the matter of prosperity. Material possessions alone are nothing unless your well-being is well-accounted for. In traditional Chinese culture, having offspring go on after you is an important value, for prosperity also means posterity. Besides, a person must have good health to enjoy life, and a harmonious relationship with friends and relatives to share his joys and sorrows. These, together with one’s intelligence, creativity, spirituality, sense of humor, as well as the right mental attitude, all need to come into play to achieve the full meaning of prosperity. How does a person really prosper with all the riches in the world with no friends or relatives and a sick body, mind and soul?