Faye Merritt is a Visiting Instructor in Chinese at Carleton.
In the 1970s, I was a little girl living in the countryside of Zhejiang Province in China. Lunar New Year is the most important holiday in China, similar to Christmas here. Growing up in the little village, secluded from the outside world, I had lots of memories of the Lunar New Year traditions. One of them is “Opening the Door.”
Ever since I could remember, every year on New Year’s Eve, my parents would tell me and my little brother to get up as early as we could to open the door on New Year’s Day and whoever got up earlier to open the door would get five cents as a reward. I am not totally sure if it is five cents or two cents, but I am certain that it is one of them, as I remember that the total amount of money I could collect from all my relatives and my parents every year during New Year’s was between one dollar and two.
Days before New Year’s Eve, my brother and I would prepare a very little purse using a piece of old cloth with a needle and thread, stitching the opening together and leaving the thread loose so we could pull it to tighten the opening after we put pennies and dimes in and loosen it when we received more pennies and dimes. It was the most exciting expectation when sewing our little sacks.
The little sacks we made were as big as our little fists. From New Year’s Eve till maybe the 15th of the first month, the little sacks would be the most precious thing in the world for me and my brother, as they would contain all our gift money. On New Year’s Eve after the New Year’s Eve feast, which was the biggest feast of the year when we would have chicken, pork, eggs, fish and sometimes beef, my parents would give us the New Year’s red packets. Inside the red paper would be wrapped five cents or a dime. My brother and I were equally important to our parents and they would give no more pennies to me or to him. It was always fair.
The money that parents give to their children on New Year’s Eve is called “ya sui qian,” meaning “pressing down the old year money.” We would put that special red packet under our pillow when we went to bed on New Year’s Eve to hold down the old year, so we could properly and peacefully grow one year older when the old year turned into the new year at midnight. On that night, every Chinese turned one year older, no matter when it was your birthday. This is called the “virtual age system.” On New Year’s Day, my brother and I would start the new year one year older, with equal money in our little sacks. We would count our money every day to see who got more money.
That is why two pennies or five pennies were so important to me and my brother, because that was the extra money that one of us could work to earn. Our parents told us that the reason the door needs to be opened as early as possible was to welcome the wealth spirit passing by to bring us luck and wealth for the new year. The house with the front door wide open in the early morning of New Year’s Day would be blessed with gold and silver. The door could be open as early as you could get up after midnight. However, for us, while believing that opening the door early on that day would bring us wealth that year, getting those extra two pennies was perhaps the bigger motivation.
Content from the feast, and with expectation for the new year and excitement for the race to get up early and open the door, it was a very special night for us. However, at age 5 or 6, my brother and I both understood that the race of getting up early the next morning actually began with falling asleep that night. Being two-and-a-half years older than my brother, and being perhaps more motivated than he, l remembered to wake up early to open the door! It was still dark, and all was quiet. My parents and my brother were all sound asleep! (We only had two rooms at that time, one for sleeping and one for eating. We all slept in the same bed when we were tiny. )
How excited I was, lying in bed, but awake, knowing that I was going to get the extra two pennies! I could just spring out of the warm bed and run out of our bedroom to the door and open the door quick! But, no, I should be careful not to wake up my brother, otherwise I might lose the two pennies to him! Suppressing my wild excitement, I managed to stay calm and put on my clothes piece by piece, so slow and stealthy that I would not wake up anyone who was asleep in the same bed.
Finally, I put on all my clothes, climbed down the bed, tiptoed through the room like a cat, and went out of the bedroom, reaching for the front door of our house. I must have been very cold, as during New Year’s, it was deep winter, and the houses were never insulated, not to mention heated.
But the excitement of winning the two pennies could beat anything. I reached the door, and pulled the big latch with all my strength, still being as quiet as I could, to make sure that no one was woken up. There it was, the two leaves of the big front door were let loose. I open them both at once. My job was done. I won. The two pennies belonged to me now.
With joy in my heart, I went back to the bedroom, lay down in my spot, and woke up my brother. Instantly he started to put on his clothes, thinking that he still had a chance, only to stop when I laughed and told him: I already opened the door! With disappointment and a deep sigh, he fell back down and went back to sleep. Gloating that I beat him, I happily took off my clothes and went back to sleep till our parents woke us up. They would be so glad to discover that when they woke up, the door was already open, and that it would be a blessed new year for their house. They would reward me the two pennies that I really deserved and would tell my brother that next year he would still have a chance to win.
I would beat my brother again and again and year after year. For some reason, he was never able to wake up earlier than me. I would do the same trick each year, never failing to torture him after I opened the door. Every time I woke him up after I opened the door, he would always hurriedly try to put on his clothes, thinking that I had just woken up too. I always had a good laugh about that. Until one year, the tables turned.
Like every year, I was so sure on New Year’s Eve that I would win the race to open the door the next day. I put my new clothes alongside my bed, so I could easily reach for them when I woke up in the morning without waking up my brother. I was about 15 in the Chinese virtual year system (I was about 13 years old). We were in the 80s now. We had moved to our new house a couple of years ago, which had two bedrooms. We didn’t need to share a bed anymore. My parents had one bed, I had one bed and my brother had one bed. My brother and I still shared one bedroom though. I went to sleep, feeling so certain that I would have a good time beating him tomorrow again, just like all the previous years. I was unbeatable.
Someone woke me up from my deep sleep. I opened my eyes and saw the smiling face of my brother. He was beaming. He announced to my face in a very calm and victorious voice: I opened the door. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I didn’t wake up to open the door on New Year’s Day? My brother who lost to me all these years beat me? How could that be possible? What happened to me? Oh well, I guess I lost to him finally!
It was amazing to realize that he never gave up after so many years of defeat. He simply never gave up! And finally he won! He won the impossible! Years later, when I looked back at this race to open the door, I came to understand and appreciate my brother’s most valuable characteristic: his persistence. This persistence and grit helped him to be successful in his school and in his career in the future: especially financially, he beats me really badly.
I hadn’t seen any gold flying into our house after all these years of following the tradition of getting up really early to open the front door of the house, but we were never tired of getting up early to open the door on the new year’s day, until that year I finally lost my race to my brother. From that year on, I never was able to beat my brother. He kept winning the race and enjoyed his victory every year.
We would use some of the money in our little sacks to buy balloons or whistles and had tons of fun blowing the balloons and some heartbreaking moments when some of our balloons got oversized and popped. Each balloon cost only a few pennies.
We did return the majority of our money to our parents, as it was eventually their money, not ours, because they were the relatives to our cousins and they were the source for the gift money for our cousins. It was just logical for us to surrender our gift money to our parents after we safeguarded them for a couple of weeks and after we used some on the balloons.
Lunar New Year comes again and again, and the memories associated with it are abundant. Each time the new year comes, it brings each of us new opportunities to win the two pennies. If you keep working at it, you will win the two pennies, just like my little brother did!