Kneeling to receive a hongbao 红包 or red envelope is, by Chinese standards, part of the experience a child needs to honour. It’s about expressing gratitude in a traditional way and is not meant to diminish their person. But, watching my kids be trained to ketou 磕头 or “kowtow,” (as its been transliterated into English), still makes this Western mom squirmy.
For kids to receive money in red envelopes at the spring festival or Chunjie 春节 holidays is the equivalent of kids getting Christmas presents on December 25th. It’s a big moment filled with big smiles.
This year, both kids are old enough to receive them themselves, so a small mat was placed before each of the adult givers. The kids were taught how to kneel down and place their foreheads on the mat in front of them before receiving their envelopes. My 2-yr old son nearly did a somersault and then thought he was being invited to sleep on the floor, which cracked us all up. This added some necessarily comic relief to an action that felt so loaded.
I struggle with the notion of kowtowing. It’s been translated into our culture as deference, but not in a good way—more the deference required of a subject to a leader for whom he or she doesn’t hold true respect. It holds a sadness in the word, like a required sacrifice by one trapped in cultural expectations.
I hesitate in these moments. I don’t step in, but I look on, anxiously. Did the English language misinterpret the word in the absorption of it? It wouldn’t be the first time this has happened…
Nonetheless, I silently vow to teach my kids that this kind of action is about cultural history – from their other half – but that they are not expected to blindly respect people simply for age and status. There’s a difference between courtesy and respect.
Then, as their mother with the age & status required to pay for the things they need, I wonder if my squirmy criticism is cancelled out by my (hypocritical?) pocketing of their hongbaos’ contents…
The inlaws laugh at me mentioning these worries. They think I "think too much." Maybe they’re right. I can never explain my cultural position to those who have no experience of this viewpoint.
So, maybe it’s just time to eat more dumplings and wish everyone a Happy New Year! Here’s to a little more levity over the holidays!
Photos: Courtesy of Ember Swift