For someone like me who was born and raised in China, Chinese New Year has always been the most exciting holiday. Lucky red envelopes (lucky money wrapped in red paper given to children by parents, grandparents, and others) play a significant role in this festival. That’s the part that children enjoy the most, and they take it seriously, even aggressively, even though they knew they would end up giving almost all of their earnings to their parents to pay for elementary school tuition. I was no exception. However, the year I was in third grade, I figured out much more about this holiday than most learn as children.
I was the first one to wake up as usual. After I went to wake up my younger sister and younger brother, we went to our parents’ bedroom for the new year’s greetings. We all got lucky red envelopes from both of our parents, as we expected every year. My father suggested we go to our grandmother’s home to wish her a happy New Year and we might get extra lucky red envelopes. My eyes opened widely, and my mouth formed a silent “what?” I suddenly went mute.
Grandmother never seemed to like me, but I never liked her either. She would smack my hands with her chopsticks when she saw me eating without my left hand holding my bowl; she would pull my left ear tightly with her right hand to stop me from crying. She would yell at me when I refused to call her grandmother.
I glanced at my sister and brother to see what they thought of my father’s suggestion. My sister was on the verge of tears. “I don’t wanna go! Grandma is not my favorite person in the world!”
My brother just slightly raised his eyebrows and shrugged, as if to say, “Let’s just go and get some red envelopes. Grandma is not going to eat us!”
My father glared at us, clarifying the idea wasn’t actually a suggestion. We had no choice. “Come on!” my brother said. “Let’s get our candy bags ready!” Suddenly, thinking of our candy bags cheered us up. Candy bags were as exciting as red envelopes because they were the treasure we could show off in front of other children during Chinese New Year time.
Grandmother’s house was located on the other side of the river. There was a small bridge right in front of her house we had to cross. My brother was always the first one to get to the other side. However, my sister and I had to hold each other’s hands and walk sideways like crabs, slowly, carefully and with our full attention. My hands started sweating when I saw grandmother was watching us from the end of the bridge with a scary face. “Happy New Year, grandmother!” we yelled loudly to make sure she could hear every word and everyone’s voice.
“Hi, my sweet grandson! How are you? Did you get hurt at school? Did your siblings pick on you?” Grandmother said with all her attention on my brother. We followed her into her house, then she took out her treasure box--stuffed with candies, chocolates, nuts and red envelopes--to let my brother take whatever he liked. My sister and I glanced at each other, as if to say, “Oh god, here she goes again.”
Grandmother invited my brother to sit on her couch, next to her, and pointed at her old bed not far away from the couch while she looked at my sister and me. We followed her directions and sat on the edge of her bed with our empty candy bags waiting to be filled up. My sister shifted her interest to the TV show. I had no idea what the topic of the conversation between my grandmother and my brother was, either; I stared out the window. I was wondering why my brother got superior treatment by grandmother. He was like a first-class passenger who has a more comfortable seat and the priority to board an airplane; furthermore, he constantly had someone concerned whether he was hungry or thirsty. My sister and I were the economy-class passengers who had the crowded seats and least priority. My sister and I ended up having our candy bags filled with some leftover candies and no red envelopes at all.
On my way walking home, I reviewed the day I was in my grandmother’s home and found my mind was filled with unanswered questions. I tried to believe grandmother just didn’t like me as much as my brother, but I couldn’t help to wonder why. After I got home, I encouraged myself to talk to my father about what happened during the day and to seek the answers. He blew a cloud of smoke into the air, and said, “You’ll understand someday.”
“When does someday come?” I asked, clearly upset. He blew some smoke again, without any further words. I then switched my questions to my mother who couldn’t bear my millions of questions every day and finally answered. She told me that she was trying her best to protect me, but I was old enough to know the truth. I learned grandmother grew up in the traditional culture, so male-preference lay as deep in her heart as in our history. My birth didn’t bring the family as much joy as expected. My grandmother went to the temple to pray for a grandson right after I was born. Then my parents had my younger sister and brother as a package deal and had to pay a fine to the government for going against the one-child policy.
The realization was too much for me as a ten-year-old girl. I didn’t know what exactly I did was wrong, and I was just not born luckily with a gift. I couldn’t help myself from crying. Crying became my unwanted hobby my entire childhood. I wanted to disappear.
I put all my effort in trying to enter grandmother’s heart. I studied very hard since then and got full points in both my Chinese and math classes. When I showed my grades to my grandmother, she said flatly, “Not bad, how is your brother doing?” Now, I was choked up, confused and disappointed. I wanted praise for what I finally achieved, and I expected something more like “Good job! My sweet granddaughter!” I knew I failed to win her heart completely. I would never be able to.
The roots of male-preference are deep in Chinese culture, and my grandmother’s traditional beliefs belonged to and represented her generation. As time passed, I realized I could only accept the traditional mindsets as they were and let go of my expectations of being valued equally by my grandmother. On the bright side, compared to those girls who were not able to make it past birth or those who had the first few years of life without a supportive family, I was lucky.