Chinese New Year is a wonderful time for families to come together and bond over age-old traditions, delicious food and engaging conversations.
Yet, some people also regard this occasion as a time of dread. Says Grace Lim, who has been married for two years, “Last year was exhausting, because all the relatives are expecting us to be pregnant and have babies already. We explained to them that we are going to wait till my husband finishes his Masters degree, but they didn’t buy it. We expect the same this year.”
To avoid the hassle of having to deal with touchy topics, one mum, who wants to be known as Mrs Yap, says her family tries to plan a trip around the Chinese New Year holiday. Mrs Yap, who has two daughters aged 5 and 9, says that the constant comparisons that the older folk make between all the kids in the family creates a very tense atmosphere. “No one really wants to discuss how badly they did in the exams last year, or how my child’s school is not as good as another child’s,” she says.
“No one really wants to discuss how badly they did in the exams last year, or how my child’s school is not as good as another child’s.”
So, just how do you get out of such sticky situations? Etiquette experts Denise Ng, managing consultant of ImagoImage, and Agnes Koh, director of Director of Etiquette & Image International, helps you wriggle your way out of uncomfortable conversations gracefully.
Your mum’s cousin, who you only see once a year, looks at you and says, “Wah! Are you pregnant?” You reply sheepishly, “Erm, nope”. “Oh…you look like you’re pregnant… Must be putting on weight,” she replies, prodding your belly.
Ng: The best thing to do is to respond light-heartedly. If you don’t want to let the secret out yet, or have in fact put on weight, laugh it off with a “Yes! Too many good dinners over the New Year!” If they press on, affably change the topic. Don’t be prickly or defensive ― not only is it bad etiquette to create a tense atmosphere during this festive period, but your conduct will be an unwanted topic of conversation among your relatives.
You’ve been trying for a baby for a year, without success. So, naturally, your non-existent baby-bump becomes a hot topic at this year’s reunion dinner.
Ng: Give the short reply, “We haven’t decided yet,” with a smile and immediately ask about the enquirer’s family or health, so that you deflect the conversation away from yourself. You’ve answered the question, made it clear that’s all you want to say, and you’ll earn yourself brownie points for showing interest in them.
You’ll be delighted if your kids manage to not throw a tantrum or break a family heirloom during a visit to a relative’s home. Is it too much to ask them to follow some sort of etiquette? What else can you do?
Koh: Spend some time going through the rules and practising good behaviour before Chinese New Year. Recite some lines of popular greetings, teach them to smile and make it real. Remind them not to do it for the sake of collecting ang pows, but teach them the concepts of “respect” and “honour”. They should receive their ang pows with both hands, in a slight forward bow. Never open the ang pow in the presence of the giver, and never compare the value of the ang pow with the other kids. Because they are in another person’s home, they should not be going into the bedrooms and taking things that don’t belong to them. Tell your kids to handle everything in the home with care and return any toys after playing with them. Also, teach your children to sit with poise ― this means not raising and crossing their legs on the sofa. Bringing a pair of Mandarin oranges with you during home visits is a must!
Ng: Also, remind them to wait to be invited to eat, before helping themselves to snacks and drinks. Don’t finish these, and leave some for others. When passing around snacks, offer some to the other guests ― especially the older folk ― before taking your share. When the meal is served, wait your turn ― adults should be served before the kids.
Because they are in another person’s home, they should not be going into the bedrooms and taking things that don’t belong to them.
Kids will be kids. But yours is being especially loud right now, throwing a tantrum, picking fights with his cousin, and refusing to cooperate. Your relatives look on, and you can hear the “tsk tsk” sounds getting louder…
Ng: Chinese New Year is a happy occasion, so act quickly to nip bad behaviour in the bud. Don’t make a big scene or shame the child by scolding him in front of everyone. Draw him to one side, and tell him why he has to stop doing whatever he was doing or saying. If he has hurt someone or broken something, get him to apologise. Be more watchful over him if he continues to misbehave, so that you can intervene swiftly to ensure that the festive atmosphere isn’t disrupted.
The conversation, which starts off with how your little ones are taking to Primary school, soon evolves into how well he is doing and what his grades were last semester. Before long, your son is being compared to his cousin’s prowess in maths, Chinese, and even what CCA he is in.
Koh: This is unavoidable. Try to take it as a pinch of salt and enjoy this once-a-year boasting “ritual”. Assure your children that no matter what, you still love them and will not let this dampen their joy in playing with their cousins. You can simply walk away if you find that the conversations get too overwhelming. Never compare the kids in their presence. You might want to set some rules and be completely honest with the other parents to avoid creating further discomfort, or affecting the kids’ confidence.
Your toddler is offered an array of pineapple tarts and other Chinese New Year snacks. Later, you spy an aunt letting him drink from her can of soda. What can you do?
Ng: It can be rude to refuse special homemade snacks, so ask your relatives to put out just a few for only the adults to enjoy. Go along to help when the host is preparing refreshments ― along the way, tell her about your kids’ healthy diet and how you try not to expose them to sweet foods. Bring along healthier snacks for your child to enjoy.
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