The Asian Voice

CNY dilemmas of modern Malaysian families: The Star columnist

Decorative lanterns on display ahead of the upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations at Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Feb 4, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Eight CNY dilemmas of modern Malaysian families (but not widely talked about to preserve family harmony):

1. CNY reunion dinner outside

It's not just a trend but has become a near necessity for CNY reunion dinners to be held at restaurants.

Yes, traditionally, the CNY is a time to gather with loved ones, to catch up with one another and spend limited but quality time feasting on good home-cooked meals.

But more and more of such home dinners are no longer practical and instead, only good for CNY videos.

The reality is that most family members feel it's unfair to burden their ageing mothers to cook up a feast.

Then comes the uncomfortable part - watching to see which family members pitch in with doing the dishes. This is the contentious, if not resented moment, when long faces can easily prevail.

The more affluent will delegate the tasks to their maids, but those without such domestic help will end up at the sink, as part of the shared workload for those on the wrong side of the economy.

This is when the ears of their husbands burn red, complaints from their wives turning vicious while their poor siblings soak in the ire. Invariably, the obligatory threats of boycotting next year's CNY reunion dinner will be rolled out.

So, to avoid a domestic squabble on the scale of a US-China trade feud and to preserve family harmony, and more significantly, to let the poor old matriarch enjoy her well-deserved rest, reunion dinners largely end up at hotels or their respective restaurants.

But like a bad or good CNY movie (depending on perspective), the show never ends without the entire clan expecting the newly well-heeled son to pay for these lavish dinners. Well, he has done well mah, he should pay for the CNY dinner lah. He paid so much income tax already, pay for dinners can die meh?

2. Putting up at the family home - no negotiation!

You may be a billionaire Tan Sri, but come CNY, your parents expect you to stay at the family home with all your siblings and their children. Don't even think of staying at a hotel - more so if you originate from a sleepy hollow New Village in some obscure district. A simple budget hotel nearby may not even exist !

Putting up in a three-bedroom home with six or more siblings and their kids will be a Team Building exercise you never signed up for.

Don't even whisper, and I mean whisper, about the bedrooms not being air conditioned, even if the seasonal stifling heat can be excruciating. The zinc-roofed new village dwelling isn't exactly the best home stay, but wah, now complain so much.

"Last time, can stay in new village home, but now rich already in KL, want air condition. Action already, mah" - that's the kind of remarks that will be unleashed if you aren't careful with your behaviour. Sensitive. Sensitive. Sensitive.

Or worse!

"Oh, now got money already. Cannot stay in the house anymore. Must stay in hotel. Only show face during dinner and after that cabut. Home not good enough for him already."

Whoa! That's even more piercing than a callous remark.

But it's a good CNY practice - never ever forget your humble roots, and your parents who put you where you are now.

3. How much should an ang pow be?

"Ah Pa, how much angpow money you gave *******? How come your brother gave me only RM10? RM10 can do what? Some more, I am the only child mah."

Gulp. How to reply? Quick, think fast. Preserve the peace.

"Ah Boy, don't compare lah. It isn't how much. It doesn't matter. It's tradition. Just smile and say thank you. Never compare, ok? Good. You listen to Ah Pa, good boy! "

Ah Boy is, however, still upset and can't comprehend his father's logic or noble efforts at maintaining family harmony.

But that's when the spanner gets thrown in the works with the wife wading into the debate.

"Dear ah, why is your brother like that one? We give his son RM50 and he gave our boy only RM10. What is this? Every year also like this. Last year, he blamed GST. Now, he blames SST."

To keep the crockery on the shelves and not airborne, there are times it's best that no words are uttered, especially when facing a losing battle. Well, that's what Sun Tzu says in the Art of War, and he specifically insisted that in a war with wives, the husbands can never ever win.

4. Recycled CNY hampers

Abalone from CNY hampers are to be kept while the "fake abalones" - limpets and clams - which are just aquatic snails, will have to be redirected elsewhere. And what is this "clams in brine"? Australians, Kiwis and South Africans must take us for idiots because brine in simple English means high concentration of salt. And not some expensive, high quality XO sauce made from dried scallops.

Abalone mushroom. That's not abalone lah. Give away.

Please give away all the sugar stuff "wah, no more carbonated water, no more cans of longan and lychee in syrup water for CNY this year. All very health conscious. No sugar please, ok?"

But never mind, keep the good wines. I know, wine also has high sugar content but keep, keep, keep. Expensive stuff. Yes, yes, I promise I won't drink. Ya ya ya, don't nag lah, I know high sugar level, but wines are expensive. Don't give it away.

And make sure, don't give away the whiskey. Whiskey doesn't have sugar. I Google already. Confirmed no sugar lah.

5. Pointless reunion with ex-classmates

CNY is always a good time to reconnect with former school mates. It's an occasion to reminisce on our formative years. The cheeky, naughty times in school, disappearing acts, school yard fights, girl friends from the school next door, the Boy Scout days of dating Girl Guides, losing battles against zits, raging hormones, the copying (er... cheating) during exams, and many other school day misadventures.

The only problem with such meetings, though, is that some of us haven't grown up, incredibly, behaving and talking like the childish Fifth Formers we once were. And of course, there are also plenty of episodes we will now choose to forget, deny or blame on the misrepresentation of facts.

For those of us who believe we are still young, we can't help but notice how we're kidding ourselves.

The receding hairlines of our friends (some now grandfathers), a few after their second divorce and facing the pain of paying alimony, or the couple or so in jail or waiting to be jailed despite their brilliance (which unfortunately led them down a dark path) are sobering reminders of life's many pains. Quite a few of them have, sadly, even "checked into" Batu Gantong in Penang or Semenyih in Selangor.

"Aiyo passed way already?"

It's just too much to hear and see, all within the three-hour dinner.

Or worse, to hear this:

"Wah, your girlfriend in school, remember or not? So damn hot leh. But I checked her FB, now very fat already. Very aunty. I show you."

That came from a former school mate who is himself fat and very "uncle".

And despite the myth that single people, especially women, are queried at family CNY gatherings and school reunions, the true question is usually - "Wah, you marry again!" and not "why are you still not married?"

6. The "Professor Dr Feng Shui Master" at every CNY

Call me cynical, but I can't understand why so many Feng Shui masters call themselves professors and doctors. No one knows, and they themselves probably don't know they are identified as professors, or what doctoral thesis they undertook to earn themselves these titles. It seems that tags like master or sifu aren't good enough.

There's no escaping - they seem to be relentlessly interviewed by the media.

It's always the Prof Dr Uncle, and sometimes these days, Aunty, talking about the year's prospects for each zodiac sign. I'd like to hear one of them say that we will all make plenty of money this year, the profits will be insanely high, the stock markets will go 100 per cent bullish, and that we should invest in property because Bank Negara will relax housing loan rules.

I'd also like to hear about how Donald Trump is crazy about Chinese food and not burgers, and that I will not have to continue to labour like an ox, which is coincidentally (and conveniently) my zodiac sign.

7. The bragging family member

This is the worst of the family lineage. This is the person who talks loudly (completely unsolicited) about his overseas trips on cruises in the seven, or even eight seas.

He's the one who waxes lyrical about his business acumen, foray into fintech, cryptocurrency and block chain technology, which the rest of us are too idiotic to understand, thus revealing that we earn less than him, or so it's made to seem.

He wonders why so many of us kill ourselves in universities while he manages with a Form Three education - and is now hiring MBA scholars to think and work for him to make his pile while we forever remain cautious and doomed as the urban, poor middle-class Malaysians.

Are the CNY holidays over yet? Two days only, right? Must go back to KL soon, mother!

8. Fatt! Fatt! Huat ah! Huat ah!

Everything must be good during the CNY. Every fruit, every wish, every colour, every dish, every drink must be associated with prosperity and luck. That's what the CNY celebrations are all about, and at every Yee Sang tossing, we make the same wishes.

That's all every Chinese does, a phenomenon not just restricted to these parts, but synonymous with any part of the Chinese world across the globe.

The number 8 is infinitely important because it has a similar pronunciation, whether in Mandarin or Cantonese, with wealth or fortune.

This number is very welcome for the Chinese, and certainly a good way to conclude this week's article.

These are the CNY celebrations, and it is surely auspicious to end with point No 8 for prosperity reasons, and also, I'm scratching the bottom of the barrel for witty ideas here.

The characters and situations above are fictitious and merely meant to tickle the funny bone.

Any resemblance to any persons (living or dead that's what it says at the end of movies, right?) or situations is purely coincidental.

It's also designed to reflect the wit and humour of CNY. Apologies in advance if these reflections cause indigestion, mental trauma or physical discomfort - they were not by design, but by accident.

Here's wishing everyone Keong Hee Huat Chye, in true Penang tradition, so that northern Hokkien is kept alive and kicking!

The writer is the group's managing director/chief executive officer. The Star is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.

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