ask auntie lao

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Auntie Lao is everyone’s wise and wizened Chinese auntie. Our tiny auntie is big on advice, tight with her purse-strings, and not to be crossed. On the outside, she’s tough like Chinese beef jerky with a glare that burns like a Sichuan peppercorn. But on the inside, she’s all heart.


Auntie Lao says:
• If a Chinese New Year’s dinner isn’t shared, a family’s love will grow cold.
• Washing your hair on Chinese New Year’s Eve will wash your new year’s luck away.
• Life’s happiness comes in pairs…especially when getting two for the price of one.
• Money wrapped in red will multiply.
• Jade bridges heaven and earth. It’s a symbol of protection and virtue.
• Never stand your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice.
• Spend a little to reap plenty.
• Five is the number of completeness. Many things come in fives: the five loves,
   the five colors, five directions, five elements, five metals, five fingers, and five toes.


Have you a gnawing question on something Chinese for wise Auntie Lao? Send your inquiries to her and she’ll answer them between tai-chi, yum cha, and shopping for jade.

Ask Auntie Lao.


Here are some recent questions posed to Auntie Lao along with her sage advice.

1) During the Year of the Pig, are you supposed to celebrate by eating pork?
    Or, are you supposed to avoid eating it?

During the Year of the Boar/Pig the Chinese will likely be eating even more pork in celebration of the new lunar year. Crackling skin roast pig is a popular Chinese banquet dish. And, the meat eating (and loving) Chinese would not abstain from this delicacy. Thus, the Chinese will celebrate this year by assuming some common astrological boar (or pig) personality characteristics of bountiful abundance, plenty of pleasure, and a bit of indulgence.

2) What’s the old superstition about eating chicken wing tips?

It’s said that young maidens who eat chicken wing tips will become old maids.
I suggest leaving them to married aunties.

3) Is there anything wrong with lamb? Can eating it cause ill health or bad luck?

In old Southern China, pregnant women were told not to eat lamb because of the old Cantonese saying of Faat Yeung Deu. Faat can mean breaking out in acne or measles. Yeung is the Cantonese word for lamb. Deu means craziness or having seizures.

4) Is it appropriate to “tap” my fingers on the dinner table to thank a friend sitting
    next to me who replenishes my tea cup?

No. The tapping custom is reserved for the waitstaff only. The practice stems from when the old emperor traveled outside the Forbidden City in disguise. Finger tapping was a method devised to imitate bowing or kowtowing to express appreciation and humility in a subtle way.

5) What is the significance of giving money to the deceased family? How much is appropriate?
    What color envelope should it be in or should it be with a card?

The Chinese will give money to the family of a decedent in lieu of flowers as an expression of sympathy. If your family has sent flowers to the decedent, giving a white envelope of money is not necessary.

In Cantonese, the white envelope is known as, “baak gum” or “white gold.” Today, Chinese Americans often include the money inside a sympathy card so it can be acknowledged. Always use a white envelope because white is the color of mourning to the Chinese. Some people forgo the sympathy card and will give the monetary gift inside a white envelope with a piece of paper containing the name of the family or person it’s from. Others will go even simpler by putting the cash inside a white envelope and write on the envelope to who it’s intended (the name of the deceased and related title, i.e. great aunt, great uncle, etc.) and who it’s from (your name and relationship to the deceased, i.e. grandniece, grandnephew etc.)

There is no set denomination to give. It depends on your relationship to the deceased. After giving the white envelope, a red envelope typically containing a dime will be given to you in return.

6) Should I attend a funeral service that lands on my birthday?

It is considered unlucky to attend a funeral on your birthday. The Chinese do not.
If you are planning a service, plan around it. Otherwise, politely decline with regrets.

7) What is the typical mourning period for the passing of an immediate family member?

Typically one month, or 30 days, is observed today as the official mourning period by Chinese Americans. But, traditionalists opt to remain home for 49 days, the number of days for a soul to reach the otherworld, before venturing out for social visits after the loss of a loved one.

8) How do you decipher who is the immediate family?

The traditional Chinese method of identifying a person’s immediate family is following your father’s family line. It consists of the decedent’s agnate or paternal grandparents, parents, spouse, siblings and spouses, children and spouses, and agnate grandchildren and spouses.

9) When attending a longevity dinner following a burial service, is it appropriate to take
    home the leftovers?

It is acceptable for immediate family members to take home leftovers. They will be taking home their own misfortune. For attending guests, it’s something you want to leave behind. The exception to this rule is when the decedent is 80 years old or older and the age of longevity is achieved. This is when death is no longer considered unfortunate.

10) What is the significance of a jade butterfly?

A jade butterfly was once worn by single women as an invitation for love. When love was found, the union would be sealed with a piece of jade. This is why many Chinese husbands wear jade wedding rings.

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