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Ang Baos Were the Reason I Always Felt Like a Loser in School

Ang Baos Were the Reason I Always Felt Like a Loser in School

  • Culture
  • Life
Top image credit: RickyLai.SG on Flickr

Once in primary school, a classmate shared with us how much money she had received in ang baos (red packets) for Chinese New Year.

She had collected more than 30 of them, bringing the total haul to a high three-digit figure, which she said was going towards a new Gameboy console. Cue collective gasps all round.

For a nine-year-old in the late 90s, that was the equivalent of striking lottery.

Whether it was because of genuine curiosity or a need to brag, the conversation then started to go round the table. Everyone found themselves obliged to share their own ang bao haul.

But each one got $100 right? Still not that bad! someone chimed in.

I corrected him and told the truth about the contents of my ang baos they were mostly eights and tens. My CNY haul turned out to be the smallest amongst the group.

His immediate reply has stuck with me till this day: Your family so poor ah?

(Photo credit: Business Insider)
I knew my familys financial status was definitely at least on par with my friends, but why had everyone gotten so much more money than I had? And to add insult to injury, I wasnt even allowed to keep my ang baos. They went straight to my mums drawer for safekeeping.

The reality was that my family had actually stopped doing CNY visiting a long time ago, which meant that my pool of ang bao contributors had shrunk considerably.

So in wanting to keep up with my friends and not have to embarrass myself in the canteen the following year, I went home that day and demanded that my mum reinstate festive duties for the next CNY. All I wanted was for my ang bao haul to not be short-changed.

Needless to say, I learnt the hard way that there was no such thing as entitlement to free money. It might have been a scolding, a slap, or both.

(Photo credit: CNBC)
I finally understood that contrary to traditional beliefs and what I had seen in TV commercials, there was no such thing as a Fortune God dishing out dollar notes during CNY. Whatever I had received from my relatives, my mum would have to give back to them in another ang bao.

In truth, that little sharing session in the canteen might have sounded innocent, but I wonder how many of my friends actually lied to keep up appearances, and to not feel humiliated under that kind of social pressure.

At nine years old, your concept of wealth and finances is still very much limited to your daily pocket money for canteen breaks. It’s probably also the same for almost everyone, just a dollar or two that will suffice for a bowl of noodles and a drink.

So CNY ang baos are to Singaporean children what Christmas presents are to kids in the West an expectation of familial love where bigger is always deemed better.

Your ang bao so small? Ha, loser, your parents dont love you!

(Image credit: DBS)
Looking back, I dont blame that friend for being so tactless in commenting on my ang bao situation. Yet I still wish he hadnt said those words because someone else could have been genuinely hurt by them.

Rather, Id prefer to lay the blame on those who choose to insert excessively large amounts into their ang baos. After all, what kind of values are you hoping to instil in a nine-year-old with a gift of $200?

It’s okay if you’re feeling generous, but generosity is also about paying it forward. If you don’t specifically instruct a child what to do with a monetary gift this stupendous, then he or she will continue to believe that money grows on trees and that Santa exists.

So perhaps we should really start giving out $8 ang baos instead no more no less, keeping it purely symbolic, as many of us will argue it should be.

And to those who engage in covert family politics, please don’t drag children into your sick little game of adult one-upmanship by flaunting your wealth through suspiciously magnanimous ang pow endowments.

(Photo credit: Insurance Guru)
As for why I wasnt allowed to keep my ang baos, my mum simply shot back my request with this question: What are you going to do with the money then?

I said I could buy myself toys, but my mum disagreed and said those should only be a reward for my academic excellence in school. Accordingly, she would save the money for me instead. Not wanting another slap, I quietly agreed, though I still secretly questioned if she really did put my money aside or used it for her own purchases.

It was only when I received my first ATM card in secondary school that I appreciated what my mum had done for me. I inserted my card into the machine to check my balance and was surprised to see a healthy sum.

12 years of ang bao money, tucked away in my bank account, and then some.

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Benjamin Lim Contributing editor