By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
China has 5,000 years of history. That doesn’t mean the Chinese culture is flawless.
Being a Chinese immigrant, I grew up with cultural practices that induced fear, self-doubt, disgust, and worry if I did or didn’t do certain things, especially during Lunar New Year (LNY). My culture is supposed to enrich me, not enslave me. And if it becomes a burden, I should let it go. Right? That’s easier said than done.
I have to confess that my publishing office, which houses both the staff of the Northwest Asian Weekly and Seattle Chinese Post, has fostered Chinese traditions, blended with superstitions. It’s not my desire to permeate such a culture in the company, but if it helps my sales team to sell advertisements to keep the newspapers alive, I would rather stick with them. It’s similar to seeing a black cat on Friday the 13th — you might feel terrified too. Frequently, I am amused by how some staff members believe in it so much.
Take our phone system for instance. Guess who has extension No. 8? In the Chinese culture, eight is the lucky number, not seven, as it sounds the same as getting wealth. The staff member, who sells advertisements, asked for No. 8 before everyone else. What it comes down to is basically psychology. The assumption is, if she feels lucky, she is also tough mentally — she becomes more confident and able to overcome any clients’ objection.
A reader once walked into our office. Her first comment was, “Your plants are getting too tall, touching the ceiling. That means you are experiencing lots of pressure. Trim the plants.” Without question, I complied.
At the time, our sales had declined sharply, and staff members got sick. After the plants were trimmed down, business improved. I don’t know if that was a coincidence or if we simply worked harder.
Looking back, I now realize the lesson. When you are experiencing bad things, don’t just sit there, moaning, groaning, and complaining. Get up and do something different to change yourself or your environment. Think of possibilities instead of challenges. Believe you can create your destiny and be in control of your life. And yes, I can’t help but check on the height of the office plants from time to time!
Disempowering cultural beliefs
What I hate most is how some cultural beliefs belittle or suppress women, children, and the poor. This is especially true in many countries.
Many young Chinese women believe that if they get their period before LNY and it continues to the first day, they are doomed for the rest of the year.
Isn’t that ridiculous that someone has to wait a whole year for their luck to change? This belief had me living in fear when I was a young woman. So ladies, don’t be fooled by this nonsense. You create your own luck — whether it be a job promotion, a profitable business deal, or meeting the love of your life.
Shed the traditions that make you question your self-worth and confidence.
Getting rid of bad luck
No one in our office wants the phone extension No. 4, as it sounds like the word “death” in Chinese. This is also true in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. You don’t see a 4th floor in hotels, commercial, and residential buildings. You don’t see many cars owned by Chinese with a license plate with the No. 4 either. Even some Western hotels don’t have a 4th floor if they target Asian clients.
Unfortunately, we can’t change our street address — 412 Maynard Avenue South. It has the figure 4. In fact, all our office addresses over the past 35 years has had the number 4.
To be able to survive for 35 years even with an unlucky address makes me wonder. Do numbers really matter?
In Chinese culture, death evokes fear, and is associated with bad luck. However, Chinese obituary advertisements are an important part of our revenue for the Seattle Chinese Post.
Some staff members don’t feel comfortable creating obituary ads. What’s the solution?
I give out a red envelope with a couple of dollars in it. We call it lucky money. Once they receive the red envelope, many Chinese automatically feel the bad omen disappear and auspicious things will happen. Wow! The power of the red envelope to renew good luck and ward off evil spirits cannot be underestimated in Chinese culture.
Lately, I am deeply environmentally conscious. I give out lots of red envelopes to staff for birthdays, LNY, and Christmas. I use close to 100 envelopes every year. Hence, our policy is to recycle the envelopes. Every time I give one out, my staff returns the empty envelopes. Of course, they keep the money.
Something new I learned last December when we received quite a few obituary ads. The lucky money inside the red envelope was no longer enough.
“Buy me a pound of roast pig,” said my staff member, who was overwhelmed with making those ads.
What, roast pig? I thought for a second as I never tried roast pig to replace bad luck before.
“Done!” I dashed out immediately to a Chinese barbecue restaurant and bought one pound for over $6. Roast pig in our culture symbolizes a celebration for happy affairs.
I was surprised that her misery and phobia vanished as I brought back the roast pig. Everyone in our office was happy to share the treat. How easy it was for me to bring back their luck, I thought. And how hard it is to convince them that we shouldn’t be scared of obituary ads — an important source of revenue and a service to the community — no different than any other ads!
In stressful times for my employees, I don’t see myself as a boss, but as a parent cheering and pushing my kids to reach the finish line before we go to press.
No funerals during New Year?
A long time ago, I broke tradition by going to funerals right before and during Lunar New Year. My mom would have a fit if she found out. She has a fear of dying, and she has refused to attend any services as of five years ago.
I was aware that when we decided to do the cover page in memory of Al Sugiyama, it was the first issue of 2017. That’s not an auspicious way to begin the year, as some Chinese would perceive. Yet, our respect and admiration for the man who had done so much for the community demands front-page coverage.
It is also liberating that I am not bound by superstition. Yes, I plan to go to Al’s celebration of life on the second day of Lunar New Year. If I don’t attend, I would feel guilty for the rest of my life. We will have a feast of roast pig afterwards for dinner. That will do it for me.
One tradition I always follow
We believe in cleaning up our garbage before LNY. It’s a tradition I learned from my family when I was a child, and now I am implementing it in America.
On the first day of LNY, we don’t discard our garbage for fear that we would throw away our wealth. We don’t clean the office or home. We arrange for all the cleaning to be done beforehand. I am old school in that respect.
By now, you probably think of me as being superstitious or traditional. I have never claimed to be progressive.
Think of people who believe that knocking on wood brings luck. Or how some folks start out their day by reading the horoscope or tarot cards. Some frequently consult fortune guidebooks before they make a major decision; or wear their lucky outfit or jewelry during a job interview or business deal. How is that different from me giving out red envelopes to entice my people to do their job?
Kung Hei Fat Choy! Wishing you prosperity for the Year of the Rooster!
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.