Pain-free Chinese New Year visiting

Singles dreading interrogation seem to be getting through family gatherings unscathed. Could it mean people are more accepting of how others lead their lives?

Chinese New Year is a time for celebration, new beginnings and, most importantly, new clothes and shoes.

But it's also a time of year that many Singaporeans have come to dread. And it has nothing to do with the Health Promotion Board making people feel bad all the time about everything they eat.

A good friend of mine wakes up on the first morning of Chinese New Year always in a foul mood and he lets the world know it.

It's not particularly auspicious (the first day is supposed to set the tone for the rest of the year), but he can't help it. He knows he is about to meet the extended family.

It's hard not to sympathise.

In his mid-thirties, single with no girlfriend for years and working freelance while running his own home-based craft business, there are so many juicy angles for extended interrogation.


And this year, with an almost four-day holiday break, there were so many, many more hours of this annual torture to endure.

He is obviously not alone. Every year, a slew of articles (and now videos) are produced on how Singaporeans can survive Chinese New Year visits to the homes of relatives.

As an unmarried man who has read most of these how-to guides for more than two decades, I can report that the latest tactics aren't even ignoring or deflecting questions, but simply cutting nosy relatives off mid-sentence.

Obviously, we are getting to the point where enough is enough. The rebels are fighting back and gleefully making a new sport out of returning fire.

So when I met up with my friend at the end of the first day of Chinese New Year visiting and found him to be in an uncharacteristically good mood, I just assumed he had taken no prisoners that day.

But I was wrong.

"People just stopped interrogating me," he said. "Or at least did so very little. It was actually quite nice!"

Then I saw a Facebook post by another friend, who has come out to his family as gay.

Not only had relatives stopped questioning him about marriage and children, but he and his partner were also given the task, for the first time, of organising reunion dinner for the extended family.

And when I checked around casually, it seemed that most of my single friends, who had expected to go into these gatherings with guns blazing, had also unexpectedly encountered calmer terrain this year.

There could be only two reasons for this, I remarked to a colleague the other day.

Either there is an age when relatives give up interrogating you because you are now clearly a lost cause, or - dare we hope - Singapore society is actually changing for the better.

"Nah, it is the first," said my colleague, who is in her late forties and also single. "I still get ang pow, you know."

We then got sidetracked into a discussion over whether very apologetically forcing middle-aged adults to accept red packets filled with small token cash amounts is the new, subtler way of making them rue their life choices.

To some extent, my colleague is right. Most of my unmarried friends are in their forties or late thirties, so it is true that we have maybe crossed into the "cannot help" or "no point" realm of existence. And there is now a fresh generation of younger victims to torment, so why bother with us?

But I would like to believe that there is some truth to the second reason I posited, because extended family gatherings (whether over Chinese New Year, Christmas or any of the major festivals) have always been a bit of a bellwether for how Singapore society is evolving.

And perhaps society has really become kinder and more accepting of people and their different life choices.

I suppose this has largely been the result of the world changing so quickly around them.

We live in a time of tremendous disruption, which has shattered many pre-conceived notions of what a job should be or what sort of education one's children should have.

Today, for instance, it is perfectly acceptable to not have an office at all and work from home as a freelancer and a contractor.

It is okay to work part time so you can juggle work and personal commitments and fill up the spare hours in a day being essentially a taxi driver by driving for Uber or Grab. In fact, some would even call it smart.

It is no longer obviously better to be working for a big blue chip company or an MNC, with an important sounding "minimum V-P" designation on the name card you give out.

These days, people know that starting a business and working for a start-up or a small or medium-sized enterprise could lead to even greater success in life, and there is even slight admiration around the fact that, in many ways, this is more demanding and requires greater entrepreneurial skill.

There is greater respect now for people pursuing creative careers, be it in art, music or design. These jobs used to be seen as having little prospects but, slowly, Singaporeans are broadening their definition of success to include the fame that comes with the mastery of a skill or a talent that others just don't have.

This Chinese New Year, I realised that, in my extended family at least, my cousins have rarely mentioned what schools their children go to. Names of schools have almost been relegated to footnotes as they enthusiastically talk about what each child is good at and hopes to pursue possibly as a career. The Government's efforts at de-emphasising elite schools and top grades look to have rubbed off.

If I had to sum it up, I would say that parents now seem much more focused on what would make their children happy in life, as opposed to what would make them happy to see their children do. It tells me that they are prepared to love their children for who they are, not who they hope they will be.

Maybe this is not uniformly true and I have only a narrow perspective, limited to what I see around me, but I am an optimist.

Here's hoping that this is a road that Singapore society is firmly on and, despite the hardening of social, religious and economic lines elsewhere around the world, we are headed towards the dream of a kinder, gentler society that embraces diversity for real.

The change starts with making every Chinese New Year visit pain-free from here on out and perhaps, one day, we will get there.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 05, 2017, with the headline 'Pain-free Chinese New Year visiting'. Print Edition | Subscribe