Red Envelopes – A Short Story

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Red Envelopes – A Short Story

Nora R, Animation Geek & Musical Freak

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“It’s…weird?”

Jiao Wu’s best friend, Amy Beth Woods, shrugs in response.

“I dunno, Jiao. It’s just kinda funky.” She munches on a baby carrot as she continues. “I mean, all of those weird ‘New Year’ masks and foods are even more of a joke than your usual stuff.” Amy Beth makes a face at Jiao’s lunch of ramen with pork, negi, bok choy, and tamago eggs. Jiao immediately stops eating and turns bright red, staring down at her lunch as her stomach flips over. “It’s just…not normal. Sorry. You know how I always say what I’m thinking,” Amy Beth says matter-of-factly while picking at her peanut butter and jelly sandwich with disgust. Jiao gets the sense that she doesn’t feel like apologizing for anything.

“Why do you even celebrate New Year’s now anyway?” Amy Beth continues, oblivious to Jiao’s downcast mood. “New Year’s is in January. It’s when the year changes. Sometimes your Chinese stuff makes no sense!” Amy Beth laughs, as if she and Jiao are sharing a private joke.

“I-I guess,” Jiao responds, now picking at her food too. “I don’t know why my mom even packs me this stuff, it’s gross.” She looks regretfully at the negi, her favorite part of her mother’s homemade ramen. Don’t worry, I’ll eat you when I get home.

“Oh! That reminds me!” Amy Beth exclaims as the lunch bell rings. She and Jiao head for their backpacks. It’s a half-day due to some conference going on for the new teachers, and Jiao had been excited (if not a bit apprehensive) to go home and start getting ready for the tuán nián, also known as the reunion dinner. Her family is hosting it this year, and she will have to help her mother cook and decorate, watch her cousins, say hello to her relatives, and stay up until midnight to greet the xīn nián, or the new year. Her married relatives will give out red envelopes to those who are children or unmarried, and the family eat tang yuan together to symbolize their unity. However, now Jiao isn’t feeling as thrilled about that. The comments Amy Beth has been making for the past few days have lodged themselves deep in her head, and she is having a hard time not thinking about them.

“Hello-o! Earth to Jiao! Are you listening to me?” Amy Beth shakes Jiao playfully, although there’s a bit of anger in her eyes at being ignored.

“Sorry, I was spacing out.”

“Well, I was saying that we should hang out this afternoon! Wanna come to my house?”

Oh, of course she does. Amy Beth’s family lives in the suburbs in what people liked to call a “McMansion.” She has two dogs, a pool, the newest model of the iPhone, and her very own laptop. Not to say that Jiao’s family is poor. They live in a rather nice part of New York City, after all; it’s not necessarily the cheapest place to be. However…

“Sorry, Amy Beth. I have to help my mom with the reunion dinner.” Jiao shifts in her seat and feels Amy Beth’s heated glare upon her for a second before it’s replaced with a fake-as-plastic smile.

“Of course! Your New Year’s Eve thingy! We were just talking about that, weren’t we?” She grimaces as she slings her backpack over one shoulder. “Sorry, I forgot. It’s kinda boring. You sure you don’t want me to get you out of it?”

“N-no, it’s fine.”

“Suit yourself,” Amy Beth shrugs as she skips ahead to talk to one of her many other friends.
Jiao’s face trembles and she runs out of PS 93 as fast as she can. She doesn’t feel like participating in tuán nián, not at all. Amy Beth’s right, she sulks as she trods from her magnet school to the subway station. As she boards the subway, one thought swims in her head: Tuán nián is stupid.

The ride home isn’t much better. Jiao’s face is blustery at this point, though she can’t tell if it’s from crying or embarrassment. Why are my traditions so weird? Why can’t my family just be normal, like Amy Beth’s?

By the time Jiao gets to her stop, she is definitely crying. Her neighbors see her running up from underground and ask her, “Zěn me le, Jiao? What’s wrong?” but she doesn’t respond. They embarrass her almost as much as she embarrasses herself.

She runs up the stoop, jams her keys into the doorhole, and runs inside. “Mǔqīn, I’m home!” she calls to her mother as she throws her backpack on the couch and turns on the TV. Taking a moment to look around, she notices that the kitchen is covered in cooking ingredients and the stove is bubbling with several pots of who-knows-what. Mǔqīn left the stove alone again, she sighs, and watches the pot of noodles nearly boil over. Suddenly, her mother rushes in and turns down the heat, masterfully transferring the noodles into a colander and wiping a bead of sweat off her forehead.

“Welcome home, nǚ’ér!” Jiao’s mother replies with a sweet smile. “Will you help your mother with the food? Your family will be here soon! Get to see all those cousins, eh?” Jiao’s mother is doing something on the stove that Jiao can’t see from her slumped position on the couch.

“I don’t feel like helping right now, Mǔqīn. I’m tired,” Jiao groans, despite her nose perking up at the smell of various familiar spices.

“What? Tired? Jiao, nǚ’ér, you have to help me! It is the rule. We are hosting the reunion dinner today!” Mǔqīn stomps over in anger, and the pots on the stove seem to boil and burble with anger too.

Duìbùqǐ, Mǔqīn, I’m sorry.” Jiao picks herself up off of the couch and drags her feet over to the kitchen. The water in the pots seems to settle as she and her mother step in, happy that someone has returned. Jiao tries not to look at the spread of traditional food, telling herself, All of this is so weird. I don’t know why I ever liked it.

“Now. Help me.”

The next few hours Jiao spends helping her mother in the kitchen. Steam rises from the many dishes brewing over the stove, and alarms beep in a clockwork fashion as time seems to fly by. Jiao is reluctant to admit to herself that she’s looking forward to dinner. By 5 PM, Jiao’s father is home, and he takes one look at all the food in the kitchen and laughs heartily. “You’ve outdone yourself, Mei Xiu,” he says, and kisses Mǔqīn on the cheek before going over to his office to finish up some work. Mǔqīn jokes that he’s hiding from her family, who will arrive any minute.

And they do. Aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents, even some distant relatives that Jiao’s not sure she remembers. They bring with them red envelopes, stories, and laughter, filling the room with sound. Most of the family is staying with friends nearby, so they don’t have to stay in the Wu’s house, but despite the house’s small size, somehow everyone is able to come inside.

Āyí Ziyi and Shūshu John are the first to come, and they poke and prod at Jiao. Their daughters, Ling and Chynna, stare up at Jiao in open adoration. She has to admit, they are pretty cute. Various other aunts, uncles, and cousins say hello to Jiao, but out of all of them, she still can’t see the one she’s looking for. Where is she?

The dinner proceeds as usual, with the whole family sitting around the table, eating food, and sharing tales of the past year. As for food, her mother delivers quite well, with traditional dishes like yu sheng, Buddha’s Delight, longevity noodles, stir-fried leeks, braised mushrooms and abalones, steamed fish in black bean sauce, and so much more. Jiao prevents herself from eating too much, convincing herself that the food is unappetizing and she doesn’t care about it, despite really wanting to eat. She’s always been picky, anyway, this barely changes anything. The one dish she allows herself is the longevity noodles. Something about them comforts her and makes her feel at home. As dinner goes on, Jiao starts talking more; eating more. It’s not that she hates conversing with relatives; she actually finds some of their stories interesting.

After dinner, relatives start giving children their red envelopes full of money. All of Jiao’s tiny cousins excitedly line up, and Jiao, the oldest, halfheartedly walks over to the line of ecstatic children. As she receives money from her relatives, she replies with a quick, “Xièxiè.” She’s so out of focus that she even responds with an English, “Thank you,” once, causing her very traditional Nǎinai Chūnhuā to scowl.

“I thought my daughter raised you to be a proper Chinese girl,” Nǎinai frowns, causing Jiao to flinch, and Nǎinai forces Jiao to repeat her words.

Xièxiè, Nǎinai.”

Red envelope time is over. Nǎinai and the other grown-ups gather in the living room to talk about politics and whatnot, while Jiao is tasked with watching her cousins. “Don’t let them out of your sight,” Mǔqīn warns, and Jiao responds with a sharp,

Shì.”

As Jiao follows her cousins outside, the boys, Jian, Bao, Ah, and Kang run ahead into the street, where the entire block seems to be alive with children. The dim night sky is a pleasant blue, and the faint glow given off by the streetlights makes Jiao feel at home, as much as she hates to admit it. Children funnel around her, playing games like Cat Catching Mice and Chase the Dragon’s Tail, which the boys of her family seem to take an interest in. Sounds fill her head; screaming, laughing, even shrieks of fear. Bubbles soar through the air, and feet smash against the pavement as girls with jump ropes cross feet and giggle with joy. Jiao may not be much older than them, but she’s too big to join in on their games. She sighs tiredly as she crosses her legs and takes a seat on the highest step of the stoop.

Suddenly she feels a tugging on her skirt. She looks down to see Chynna, Āyí Ziyí’s daughter, with a face full of tears. Chynna is only four, and she is known for her ability to cry at almost anything. Still, it’s Jiao’s job to help her, so she sits her down on the stoop. “What’s wrong, Chynna?”

Chynna’s eyes water as she blubbers out a response. “Idonwannaplay.”

“Why not, Chynna? I thought you loved jump rope!”

“Yeah, but-” Chynna starts to cry again as Jiao comforts her. “L-look.”

Chynna’s chubby finger points in the direction of her older sister, Ling, and her cousins, Jia and Lihua. The three girls have joined in on the game of jump rope going on in the street, and seem to be having a good time with the neighborhood kids. “They’re playin’ jump rope. I- I wanna play!” Chynna bursts into tears, and Jiao sighs, frustrated. What is it with little kids and crying?

“Why don’t you go ask them if you can play?”

“The big girls won’t let me!” Chynna makes a face at Li and Chen, the daughters of Mr. Huang. He runs the local Chinese grocery, and his daughters think that they’re better than everyone because of it. “They said- they said!”

“What did they say, Chynna?”

“They called me a gwáilóu!”

Jiao is surprised. Chynna’s father, Shūshu John, is white, and he has very light hair. Despite Ling inheriting her mother’s jet black locks, Chynna’s hair is shock blonde, contrasting greatly with her more Chinese features. Jiao never thought that it could become a problem, but based on what the Huang girls had said to Chynna, Jiao guesses that it is.

Recovering from her shock for a second, Jiao presses Chynna. “Why do you care? You’re just as pretty as they are,” she says, stroking the young girl’s pigtails. Chynna makes a face and swishes her pigtails in Jiao’s face, standing up and grimacing.

“But I amen’t Chinese enough!” she retorts. “They’re playin’ a Chinese game and I amen’t Chinese enough so I can’t play!” Her eyes light up as an idea bursts into her head. “Jiao! Can you change my hair dark? I wanna be Chinese enough!”

Jiao smiles sadly at the little girl. “Chynna, your mama would kill me if I did that to you.” Chynna’s face droops and she stares at the ground. “But your hair is so nice! And it makes you so special.”

“But I don’t wanna be special! I wanna be normal!”

“You aren’t,” Jiao says, “and that’s ok! Just be how you are and be happy with it.”

“How?” Chynna asks. “How do I be happy?”

“Well, think of it this way.” Jiao sweeps her hand across the block in a dramatic fashion. It’s getting darker, and the sun has started to set, painting the sky a brilliant gold. “You’re the only girl on this street with hair the color of the sky. They must be so jealous of you!”

Chynna perks up and smiles. “Really?”

“Yes, really! Go tell them that. Tell them you want to play.”

Chynna strides down the stoop and hops onto the pavement before toddling over to her sister and demanding she play. Seven-year-old Ling looks over at Jiao questioningly, and Jiao shoots daggers with her eyes in return. Ling sheepishly allows her sister into the game, and Chynna smiles the biggest smile that Jiao’s ever seen. She feels accomplished at this, and enjoys the rest of the sunset in peace as the rippling waves of color dart across the sky.

The block starts to quiet down once the sun sets. Children are ushered inside by their parents, and games end as friends say goodbye to each other and return to their individual homes. Jiao’s family are the last to be called in, and the cousins are playing up until the very last minute. However, Nǎinai eventually stomps outside and orders the family in to prepare for the night. No one dares to defy Nǎinai, and they all file in one by one.

At this point, Chynna and Kang, the youngest kids, go down for a nap. Everyone has to be awake at midnight, so they can go up to the roof and greet the new year. The others all do their own thing. While most of the adults continue talking, Jia joins in on the conversation, Lihua draws, Ling watches Lihua, and Ah, Bao, and Jian play hide-and-seek. Jiao just sits down and watches, nodding off a bit herself. Why am I tired? she scoffs. I never fall asleep before New Year’s. However, her head grows heavier and heavier, and she soon falls fast asleep.

She awakens to someone shaking her softly. “Jiao? Jiao?” the voice calls, and Jiao opens her eyes only to discover her young uncle Jingfei with a twinkle in his eye. “Come on; it’s midnight!” Jiao’s shocked. That late already? I guess I had nothing to do. She laughs a bit as she runs up the stairs to the roof with Jingfei. Seems rather convenient that I woke up just now. She’s still missing something, rather, someone, but she wasn’t expecting her to come anyway. The least she can do is enjoy New Year’s with her famil-

Jiao stops as she flashes back to what Amy Beth said earlier that day.

“Sometimes your Chinese stuff makes no sense!”

To her surprise, Jiao finds herself feeling the same as before. No shying away, no embarrassment at participating in festivities. She only feels a little bad that Amy Beth’s words have affected her so much. Why do I care? Jiao begins to think. What does that mean to me? I had so much fun today, and Amy Beth can’t change any of that.

Suddenly, Jiao’s train of thought is interrupted. Someone bangs on the front door in a fervor, as if they are rushing to get in. Jiao’s eyes float to the clock, and she realizes that it’s already 11:58!

She runs to the door and fiddles with the lock. Come on, come on! Of all the times for this to not be working! She is eventually able to rip open the door, and her smile widens as she notices who is standing there. The one who always supported her. The one who always consoled her. The one who always told her she was strong and special, no matter what.
Hana. She’s home.

Hana runs through the door and scoops Jiao up in her arms. “Hey, sis! Nice to see you too,” she smiles, and squeezes Jiao tightly. Hana had just started college the previous September, and living without her has been rough for the Wus.

Jiao smiles too, and then scowls. “You’re late! You said you would be here yesterday.”

Her sister looks apologetic. “Sorry, Jiao. My flight got snowed out. There was no way I was going to make it. How are you?

What’s going on?” She looks around the now-empty house, and looks back at Jiao. “And more importantly, where is everyone?”

Jiao remembers the time. “We have to go, Hana! It’s almost the New Year!”

The pair rush upstairs in a fervor and just barely make it to the roof before the sound of fireworks fills the air. The pitch black sky is illuminated by a thousand colors, shapes, and patterns, and the loud cracks of power leave Chynna crying and the other children fascinated. Hana and Jiao run to the center of the roof just as a brilliant red firework bursts up into the sky, spiraling outward and invoking applause from the whole family. Jiao loves the fireworks, but she’s even happier to see her sister.

The two start talking long before the fireworks end. About school, about classes, about friends, about family. When Jiao fills Hana in on what Amy Beth has been saying, Hana’s eyes become fiery. “In what world did that girl seem like a good friend to you?”

“I dunno, sorry.”

“Don’t apologize! I’m so proud of you! You realized that what she said was wrong all on your own!”
I did?

“I guess so.”

“Come on, be more confident than that!”

They talk for what seems like hours and hours. The rest of the family has already headed back inside and started getting ready for bed, but Jiao and Hana are too busy catching up. As Hana notices Jiao’s drooping eyes, she nudges her subtly.

“Looks like someone’s tired.”

“No I’m…not!” Jiao responds, but instantly she and Hana begin to laugh at her slurred words. “Ok, maybe…just a little…bit.”

“Alright, Ms. Sleepyhead. I have one last thing for your before you go off to Snoozetown.” Hana ruffles Jiao’s hair as she hands her something. It’s hard for Jiao to make out in the dark, but it seems roughly the shape and size of…an envelope?!

“Is this…?”

“Go on, open it!”

Jiao tears open the dark envelope, and her eyes become starry with glee as she stares at the $20 bill inside.

Hana shifts. “I know it’s not much, but it’s what I could spare, with my part-time j-” Jiao cuts her off and squeezes her, laughing and crying at the same time.

“What are you talking about? It’s perfect”

~END~