Every time I see a red envelope, I feel as though I’m entering a time machine.
This red envelope is more than just paper. It’s filled with lucky money, given from adults to children during the Lunar New Year as a way to wish them health and a long life.
As I clean out my room and stumble upon a stack of my favorite red envelopes, I’m teleported through a catalog of memories I associate with the Lunar New Year.
My first stop: Texas, circa 2009. I’m surrounded by many things: the humid air that makes my skin sticky; the sounds of firecrackers, which deafen me for a week; the sight of the dragon dancers that makes my back ache just by watching. The drums and cymbals grow louder and louder. Parents shoot Vietnamese profanities out of their mouths at their kids who won’t stop running around. My first stop is overwhelming. But at least I have a red envelope in hand.
The next place I visit is a temple in Warren, Mich. It’s 2010. The smell of the burnt firecrackers overtakes my nose, and I can no longer smell the glutinous sticky rice made by the temple nuns in the basement or the smell of the freshly peeled oranges that the monk handed out to everyone. I remember the happiness I felt every time we celebrated the New Year at temple because the most important thing to me was that I got to skip school the next day. And suddenly, before I know it, the clock reads 12:30 in the morning, my eyes droop and the voices around me gradually get quieter as I fall asleep on the temple floor. My second stop is pure childhood. I get money in a red envelope and get to skip school — what more could I want as a kid?
Stop three takes place in 2012 at an annual New Year’s celebration in Berkley, Mich. A huge group of us temple children nervously wait backstage as we get ready to perform. Jittery nerves, hearts wildly beating. Onstage, I begin to love it — the lights, the cheers, the all-eyes-on-us feeling. Everyone claps loudly and I spend the rest of the night running around in my áo dài that came straight from Vietnam, munching on the over-toasted bánh mì that spreads a trail of crumbs behind me. My third stop is heartwarming. Everyone is having a good time with the red envelopes tucked deep into the pockets of their pants.
Next: California, 2018. I’m older now, so the feelings are much clearer — like the feeling of excitement I get catching the plane to California and heading straight from the hotel to a temple there. This temple is big. It’s bright. It’s one of the nicest I have ever seen. Large red paper lanterns and yellow flowers adorn the doors and walkways, making me feel like I’m somewhere straight out of a movie. We see someone my uncle knows, and she gives my sister and me a red envelope. Here, I feel at home. Surrounded by the smells of food sold at the stations and tasting the crispy egg rolls in my mouth, I feel like I’m in my kitchen at home eating all of my mom’s home-cooked meals. My fourth stop gives me comfort. I’m blessed by the envelope and the opportunity for good food.
For the last stop, I’m back home and it’s 2020. It’s my family’s second year hosting a Vietnamese New Year’s celebration with all our family friends. The younger children painting, the older kids taking photos or playing video games in my room, the moms singing the night away with every karaoke song they know by heart and the dads drinking and discussing whatever dads like to discuss. At around 11 p.m., the dads sit along the couches and we children go down the line, wishing them a happy new year, health and happiness in exchange for these little red envelopes, holding in their clutches a $2 bill. This memory is loving. The interaction between giving and receiving is nothing short of pure warmth and tenderness in my heart.
Stepping out of the time machine, I feel full, though I begin to wonder: What is the Lunar New Year going to bring me this year? As Feb. 12 gets closer and closer, I realize how different the celebration will look with the pandemic looming over us. No more firecrackers and large celebrations in the main temple room where everyone sits knee-to-knee, shoulder-to-shoulder. No more long lines of dads passing out money, or trips to California or Texas where I can still feel at home.
Despite all these memories I associate with the Lunar New Year, which I will definitely miss this year and as long as COVID-19 is around, I stay grounded in the fact that the one common theme among all these memories is my family. My family that makes me feel loved, makes me feel at home, makes me connected to who I am. So as long as I’m with them, the Lunar New Year will always be valuable. With them, and a red envelope.
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