Top 5 Bad Chinese New Year Conversation Starters (and How To Deal with Them)

Ah, the Lunar New Year. It’s like the Chinese version of Christmas, except you get ang pows instead of presents, pussy willows instead of pine trees, and reunion dinners instead of turkey and ham. But one tradition remains constant despite the East-West contrast: bad conversation starters.

The Blogfather’s had his fair share, and has put together a collection of 5 of his favourite ones — and with them, ways to deal with the offenders.


1. “So when your turn to get married ah?”

There is no escape from this question as long as you’re single, and it doesn’t matter if you’re male, female, straight, gay, bisexual, transgender, castrated or 4 years old. But do realise the ulterior motive to the question your relatives so urgently want an answer to — pursuant to rule 1 of the red packet giving tradition, they are really pining for the day when they no longer have to include you in their list of ang pow recipients.

Possible retorts:

a. “But I need your ang pow money!”

b. “Why? Is your husband/wife/son/daughter/grandchild available?” (Start smacking your lips, rubbing your hands and twitching one eye.”

c. “When Section 377A is repealed.” (Gasp!)

What doesn’t work any more:

“When the Pope resigns.” (One friend actually used this one; six hours later the Pope’s resignation was all over the news.)

2. “So when are you going to pop yourself a child?”

This question, usually asked by a parent, actually goes against the motives stated in the marriage question, but speaking from a parent’s position, I would say having a bundle of joy to share among family and friends would supersede having to come up with the cost of an extra red packet. Besides, your offending friend or relative is probably only planning to see the cute little tike once a year; the rest of the year, you have to bear the responsibility of raising your mini-demon.

And the worst thing about this question is, they don’t stop even after you’ve already had one. “So, when are you going to have your second?” “When’s your third?” “Why are you stopping? Government give you good money you know?”

Possible retorts:

a. (Pointing at your husband’s belly, or if you are the husband, your own belly) “Neh! Already!”

b. “Oh. Well, why did you stop having any more?”

c. (My wife’s favourite) “You think what? Requisite stock ah?”

What doesn’t work any more:

“This country doesn’t need any more citizens.” (The government begs to differ.)

3. “Wah, you very fat already hor?”

I really hate it when people say that to me. It’s like every year, they look at me and think I can’t grow any bigger, and then the following year, I seem to have gained even more.

It’s even more unfortunate that they only see me the day after I had my reunion dinner(s) (see bad conversation starter no. 5).

Possible retorts:

a. “Wah, you very old already hor?”

b. (Respond with a shocked expression, then feign holding back of tears, and dramatically turn away and run away crying)

c. “Ya, this year I learnt how to make my own bak kwa, and went a bit overboard with the testing.”

What doesn’t work any more:

“Okay what. People will offer me reserve seat on buses and trains leh…” (These days, you’d be lucky to even get on a bus or train.)

4. “So what are you working as now?”

For those who have been at their jobs for more than a few Chinese New Years now, getting asked this question only shows how much the person asking actually cares, seeing as you’d give the same reply year after year.

And then there’s the rest of us. I know a couple of dads who try hard to avoid this line of questioning. Some of us may be retrenched, some of us may be experimenting with coming out on our own, some of us may not like our job enough to want to talk about it, and I know one of u has a hard time telling people he’s a stay-at-home dad. Me? I prefer to leave a good impression, so I usually use the following:

Possible retorts:

a. “I’m a prostitute.” (Works really well if you’re a guy.)

b. “Up until a few weeks ago, I was working at Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council. The Punggol East branch office.” (note: I wrote this when the PAP lost the ward during the 2011 elections.)

c. “I’m retrenched. Which reminds me, can I get your children’s ang pows back? I need the money.”

What doesn’t work any more:

“If I tell you, I’d have to kill you.” (Because they’d forget anyway after you told them.)

5. “Eh, come, come! Eat some more leh.”

Food torture was an entertainment option for some ancient Roman tyrants, and a fave World War II pastime among the Japanese invaders. Seems it’s also quite common among some Chinese households during Lunar New Year dinners (reunion dinners included).

I understand the practice is deeply entrenched in meaning (plentiful food on the table as a symbol of prosperity), but reunion dinners should not be treated as stock clearance events. There is a limit to how much the human body can hold in its digestive system, and we want to enjoy your company, not die from it. So have mercy on your guests, I beg you.

Possible retorts (and I have used them all):

a. “Seriously, are you trying to kill me?”

b. “Sorry, I can’t help you any more. (To everyone else at the table) You all take care, okay?” (then stand up, unbuckle your belt, pop your pants button, unzip a
little and waddle to the sofa.)

c. “If I take one more razor clam, whatever happens to me will be entirely your responsibility.” (Update: This has since become a real threat for me.)

What doesn’t work any more:

“Wait people say I fat how?”

Chinese New Year – An Ancient Conspiracy

CNY-angpowThe Population White Paper, the whole Marriage and Parenthood package revisions and Chinese New Year (CNY); to the Blogfather, there is no better time to kvetch about what I feel has to be the most well-devised conspiracy theory in the history of Chinese tradition and family values.

I always believed that the principles behind the Chinese New Year red packet tradition to be a cunning scheme to boost the TFR (total fertility rate, for those who haven’t been reading the papers the last few months) of Chinese families. The rules are as follows:

  1. No matter how young or how old, if you’re single, you get a red packet from any couple who’s married (in true tradition, it goes as far as one red packet per married person, but in our current economic state, we have to cut costs and treat couples as a single unit now).
  2. As long as you’re married, you give a red packet to any single person you come across (certain communities will allow a one-year grace for newlyweds, so if you’re celebrating your first CNY as a married couple, you’re excused, but the jury’s still out on whether you can still collect).
  3. There’s an ang pow index to take note of too, (Susan of A Juggling Mom has the rate card on her blog), so you know people take this whole ang pow thing damn seriously, okay?

By permutating rules 1 and 2, most of us will have figured out how the whole “make-more-babies” strategy works. It’s all fine and good if you’re single, but your parents have to fork out in your stead. Then you fall in love, decide he or she is THE ONE, and announce to the whole world you’re getting hitched. As a Chinese couple, your traditional wedding ritual (mainly the big-ass 8-course Chinese wedding dinner involving your 500 friends, families and a handful of people who might have just invited themselves) is your last chance at collecting red packets for profit, so you know you got to make it count. Because the moment you pass the traditional wedding threshold, that’s when the whole trouble starts.

Childless couples stand to lose the most. With no kids to make back what you’re giving out, Chinese New Year becomes a choice of whether you will give away money to build and maintain your various familial and social circles, or spend that money on a trip to anywhere but here for the next 15 days just to avoid the confrontation.

Couples with one child also perspire, particularly if you follow the AIA rate card standards encounter friends or extended family who have more children than you (and I think the parents-of-one among us are beginning to feel the diseconomies of scale here as our friends start multiplying themselves with increasing efficiency).

But regardless of whether that AIA ang pow rate card exists, every red packet you receive is a gamble. I’ve personally received limited edition $2 phone cards back in my day, and while those were useful for my National Service “call girlfriend” nights, it’s really not as far-reaching as money, is it? Other times I’ve gotten big tippers that like blue (or even yellow), and their contribution can last me maybe a couple of months of school recesses. (And interestingly, I don’t remember my own parents ever asking me to cough up my annual CNY earnings).

So people, have more kids. If not for the government incentives, it makes your annual CNY celebrations a little less painful.

To everyone reading this, ?????and more importantly, ????! You’ll seriously need them.