Sunday 15 February 2015

Skip Chinese New Year? I tried

In 2001, US author John Grisham wrote a No. 1 New York Times bestseller called Skipping Christmas.

For those who have never heard of Grisham, his books were like the Fifty Shades Of Grey of the 90s. Only instead of writing about journalists having kinky sex with their interview subjects (happens to me all the time), Grisham wrote mostly about lawyers. So it was more like Fifty Shades Of Grey Suits.

But Skipping Christmas was not about lawyers, so it was quite a departure for Grisham. As the title suggests, the short novel is about a married American couple who decide to skip Christmas.

That is, to forgo all the annual rituals that come with the holiday — the shopping, the tree, the decorating, the cards, the fruitcake and so on.

As someone who routinely doesn’t do any of those things (except shopping), I was surprised you could write a whole book about not doing those things.

Why put up decorations and get a tree when you have to get rid of them in a couple of weeks anyway?

But Skipping Christmas was not only a book — it also became a 2004 movie called Christmas With The Kranks, starring Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis.

Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly Lord Of The Rings.

Then this year, I finally got it. I finally understood why it was so difficult for the fictional American couple to skip Christmas.

It would be like me trying to skip Chinese New Year.

I have more or less managed to skip everything else.

Over the years, I have trained my family (my wife and two teenage kids) not to get sucked in by all these fake “holidays” promoted by the retail industrial complex — Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and the increasingly popular Halloween.

No presents. No cards. No overpriced “holiday” restaurant meals.

But I do allow cakes and presents on birthdays, and my wife gets the set lunch at Jack’s Place on our wedding anniversary. But that was it.

We, as a family, do not participate in any superfluous holiday ritual.

Except for Chinese New Year.

It should be called the Festival of Queues, with all the Singaporeans queueing for bak kwa and to buy Toto for the annual Hongbao Draw.

Even I couldn’t escape queuing for new notes at the bank to stuff into the hongbao.

But why do I need to give hongbao anyway, much less use new notes?

Just because everyone is doing it? Because it’s tradition? For good luck? Courtesy?

One year, I decided not to give out hongbao at all when visiting relatives.

Call me stingy. Call me a CNY Scrooge. I don’t care.

After the CPF changes, I’m still not sure exactly how much or how little I can withdraw from my account when I turn 55 in six years, so cash flow is no small consideration.

Not everyone can work at DBS Bank and get a $1,000 SG50 hongbao.

I should be practical and secure enough to withstand some name-calling and gossipy whispers behind my back.

But my mother wasn’t. I later found out that to save face, my mother gave out hongbao on my behalf, which kind of defeated the purpose.

I think too many of us care too much about saving face (instead of saving money). So it was back to queueing for new notes to stuff into the hongbao the next year.

Chinese New Year is one reason I miss full-time national service (NS).

At least during my NS, I could volunteer for CNY duty to avoid visiting relatives and lie to my mother that it was my unreasonable Encik who forced me to be on duty.

So I had two very restful Chinese New Years, thanks to conscription.

Without NS, the only way for me to get out of visiting relatives now is to go on an actual holiday overseas during the holiday, which indeed, some of my relatives have done.

Hey, wait a minute. Were they avoiding me?

I wonder, is it possible to not get sucked into the CNY industrial complex without leaving the country?

In other words, could I skip Chinese New Year?

I could lie to my mother that the family was going on a holiday.

No hongbao, no oranges, no shopping for new clothes and no reunion dinner.

My wife was all for it.

“Let’s do it!” she said.

But alas, my damn kids protested.

My son claimed he actually enjoyed seeing our relatives once a year.

My daughter said: “I have to go visit the food and the hongbao.”

Sure, it’s all profit for them, but it’s just dollar bills flying out of my wallet for me.

So not this year, but maybe next year.

And if not next year, then the year after that.

But someday — I don’t know when — I’m going to write a book called Skipping Chinese New Year and it will be autobiographical.

New York Times bestsellers list, here I come!

- Published in The New Paper, 15 February 2015