Red Envelopes

By Caleb Pan

 I’ve been given many definitions of what hope is supposed to be. A penny thrown into a well. The ticking of a spin of a wheel. A tooth placed under a pillow. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it is defined as: “to cherish a desire with anticipation… to desire with expectation of obtainment.” That definition is too straightforward, too shallow. The Bible mentions it as, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” At the time of first reading it, it was too cryptic for me to decipher. But the answer washed up one day.

 Being an Asian-American, there are certain perks that most of my peers don’t have access to. My particular perk is Chinese New Year’s, a holiday filled with crimson firecrackers and dandelion dances that rival the Fourth of July. It’s unique, an untouched ancestral tradition. It outmaneuvers American commercialism, eluding the cheap knockoffs of Tang suits and the cheongsams, and the synthesized recipes of Panda Express. Aside from the food and festivities, the real perk is the red envelopes with the money inside.

The envelopes were always presented to the youth after they wish their parents long life, prosperity, and whatever else it takes to haul in the cash. I remember in my early years, my sister and I would recite each Chinese up tone and down tone like a quick surging wave, eager to get it over with. As a typical six-year-old at the time, I would immediately cash in my ten dollars for Legos. I took the tradition for granted with my childish and snobby heart. Maybe it was because my parents never explained what it really meant. To me it was just an extra bonus. My fifth-grade friends considered me only lucky to have a double portion of birthday money. For a while, I thought so too.

But I learned otherwise.

 I don’t remember my first envelope. My father claimed one of his friends gave it to me as an infant for my so-called “education fund,” an account he always refers to whenever he takes away extra cash I get from family friends. I am highly suspicious but I know he’s looking out for my best interests. The earliest envelope I remember receiving was the first time I flew across the Pacific to visit my grandparents. I can barely recollect the scene in photographs: my uncle setting up a timed camera, my grandfather’s hand on my shoulder, my father’s hair when it was still black. It was something that taught three-year-old me what a family was.  

 Some years ago, my grandfather fell ill. He walked slower and laughed less. He became clumsy, accidently burning himself on a stove. His flesh started to sag and his voice gradually, but linearly, went away. His eye color slowly dissolved into a misty darkness. That year, we couldn’t take him along to visit the fish markets. We weren’t allowed to share the drunk chicken with him at dinner because he wasn’t able to chew right. He didn’t come along to explore the muddy orchids where the crabs burrowed. He confined himself to the park where he sprinkled bits of bread to koi fish. I bit my cheeks whenever I saw him; I was scared.

At the end of our trip, when leaving to fly back home, my grandfather looked at me with heartbreaking regret. He apologized in a long, syrupy-like sentence. He promised me he would get better the next year we come back. Smiling, I hoped so too. A year went by. During the interval, the conversations between my grandmother and father became lengthier over grainy FaceTime chats. About a year later, in December, we returned to visit them again.

There wasn’t much improvement. The burn hadn’t healed. My grandfather could no longer fully walk, only trudge with difficulty. His hearing began to fade and became less responsive when we tried talking to him. When he watched flamboyant and screeching Chinese operas on the TV, I often stayed by to hold his hand, silently watching with him but I was really desperately praying that he’d smile again. He didn’t. Another year went by.

One day, it happened. I gasped when I saw the wheelchair. His eyes flashed me only one word to read: defeated. For some reason, I snapped. In stories I’ve read, there would be that line: “so-and-so reeled at the news.” That’s what it was like. My stomach reeled, churning and roiling with anxiety. My vision reeled, the pixels of the tablet hysterically looping into a mutilated rainbow. And my brain reeled, knocking my memories around like a pinball machine as I stood there paralyzed. No! I wanted to scream.

It was a downward spiral. The burn was still unhealed after two years. Therapy was useless: he didn’t have the motivation to re-learn how to walk and reply to questions. He struggled with multiplication problems and his calligraphy started to fade. Everything deteriorated in a steady linear line of a negative slope, quietly preparing for its touchdown on the x-axis. Depression burrowed into my grandfather’s heart. He could no longer see the light. He was a wilted flower surrounded by wrinkled petals. How much more time did we have before there was nothing left?

The answer finally came during our last visit. My grandmother sat with me at the dinner table as we looked through the photo album on her iPad. It showed photos of my family’s visits over the years: pictures of me on a black sanded seashore, of me eating a sausage filled with flying fish eggs, of me pretending to be a chemist at my uncle’s university. I laughed at my sister’s adorable baby pictures, especially the ones where she cried because she didn’t get to blow out my birthday candles. But then I saw something I almost forgot about. It was my grandfather, smiling. Moments when he still hiked up mountains and laughed at jokes. Times when he feasted on expensive birthday meals and dressed up in bathrobes. I cried a little, not because of my sadness of what I wished was still here. But because I had forgotten all this time what hope was.

Before we left, my grandmother presented me with one final envelope. It was thick. I looked at her with welt up eyes, telling her to take it back. She shook her head and said it was for me. She gave me a sad smile and told me in a watery voice:

“There’s not much left for me now, it’s all for you.”
“No, you can’t, this is too much,” I replied.
“Ah, but you have missed the meaning all these years.”
“What meaning?”
“The red envelopes… they symbolize what people fear the most: hope.”

 Make no mistake, hope is treacherous. There’s a reason why it didn’t escape Pandora’s Box with the others. Unlike the other plagues, it lifts up its victims first and then buries them alive. It’s able to instantly shatter someone into pieces.

 But red means a lot. Fire. Blood. Passion. Love. Sacrifice. Red is a seal that defies despair, past or future. The envelopes mean a lot more than an extra allowance. It means one generation was handing down thousands and thousands of hopes and dreams of past ones to the next one. It transcends ancient curses and future calamities, a scarlet letter saying: no matter what happens, I’m still here, for you. It is a baton, a symbol of hope that the next runner would do even better than the one before. Although my grandfather may be nearing the end, I know there’s still an ember, a hope in him for me. He may not be there to hand me the envelopes anymore but that’s okay. He may have given up on himself, but I know he hasn’t given up on me. And I know there’s still others placing their bets on me too.


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