A Chinese New Year “hong bao” Comes In Handy


            Thursday afternoon had my dresser drawer full of Chinese bills, each one 100 yuan ($14.00).  I had just been to the bank to cash travelers checks.  Friday morning, I was returning to the vet and needed to pay the bill, in full and in cash.

            In China, there are no personal checking accounts.  Bank cards for quick automated cash are becoming popular and a few of the upper middle-class have credit cards, but when it comes to paying for anything, almost all places require cash.  Buying air tickets overseas’ or in country?  Buying or renting an apartment? Purchasing a car?  Paying  hospital bills?  Paying for college tuition fees?  Cash required, up front.

            This is one reason why you will often see many in Chinese banks with huge stacks of money.  Those coming in have done business transactions and are depositing their customers’ sums into accounts.  Those leaving are  taking their money to pay bills or purchase expensive items.

            The same goes for me, such as when I took out $3,500 worth of  yuan  for my university fees and the yearly rental of the apartment.

             And all of us are also the same in our paranoid guarding of what we have.  We clutch our bulging wads, placed securely in our purses or bags, until we reach home where we can hide them in places we hope thieves won’t be looking.

            I was rather relieved when Friday morning arrived so I could get rid of all my cash.  Little Flower was to have a quick visit at Dr. Q’s, just to make sure all was well, and then there would be no more IVs at the hospital.  I had wanted to pay the day before but Dr. Q suggested we wait, just to make sure.

            So Friday, after class, I was ready to go with LF in her carrier and my money in my bag.

             The only problem had been where to put all those bills.  I searched for a large envelope but couldn’t find one.  What I did find were a handful of leftover Chinese New Year hong baos.

            The hong bao, or red envelope, is used in China during the Chinese New Year to give money gifts.   Money is the appropriate gift for children on New Year’s or birthdays, not giving presents as in the States.  I had picked up a number of hong baos to use during the last Spring Festival as I have several children in the neighborhood who like to visit me.  But I had overbought so now they just sat there, rather useless, until next year’s New Year’s celebrations arrived.

            Since I had nothing else to put the vet’s money in, I stuffed it into one of the red envelopes.  It was a tight fit but as long as the bills stayed together, I was happy.

            After climbing into the taxi, I told the driver where to go and waited for the usual quick 20-minute ride across town.  But there was a problem.  This particular driver felt the need to go a different route, one I thought was much further and certainly would take longer. 

            When all traffic suddenly came to a full standstill, I knew I had been right.

            “The other road was faster!” I griped.  “This way is so slow.  Look at all the cars!  I’ve gone to the vet’s every day for 5 days and no taxi driver ever took this road.”

            The driver remained silent, which only annoyed me even more.

            “Are you a Chengdu native?” I pressed, wanting him to say something.  Maybe he wasn’t familiar with the way to the vet’s.

            “Yes,” he answered.  “I’m a Chengdu native.  But the road you want is farther away.  And there is a problem now.  An accident.  There’s nothing I can do.”

            As the wait become longer and the cars merely inched forward, neither of us were very happy.  LF was fidgeting in her carrier and wanted out,  I was muttering we should have gone the other way, and the poor driver was stuck with an unhappy foreigner plus a line of cars that just didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

            Finally, in desperation, he asked if he could take me another way, down one of the side streets.  It was going in the opposite direction I wanted to go in but he could eventually get us back on the right course.

            “Whatever,” I sighed.  “Doesn’t matter to me.  You’re the driver.”

            After about 5 minutes, things started looking up.  He was able to maneuver around all the trouble spots.  We were able to zip along a bit faster and make some headway, albeit in the wrong direction.

            By that time, I had cooled down a bit and felt rather ashamed at my rudeness.  There are just days when I get impatient and cranky, thinking I know it all.  Most bad-China days, I am able to hold my tongue and be civil,  but that Friday was not one of them.

            Obviously, it was time for a full, sincere apology.

            “I’m so sorry,” I said with great contrition. “I was very impolite and had no patience.  I should listen to you.  You’re the driver.  You’re the Chengdu native.  I’m just a foreigner who doesn’t know the city very well.  Really, I’m very sorry to give you so much trouble.”

            “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I bother you. I have to take you so far out-of-the-way. You can see,  Chengdu traffic is so bad.”

            Those kind, forgiving words opened the door to a fresh new start on our journey together. 

            It took another 40 minutes before we finally reached the vet’s.  During that time, Mr. Liu (the driver) and I chatted about a variety of subjects.  We talked about the earthquake, the people still sleeping in tents alongside the road, our families, the prices of food and pets in China.  He was kind enough to wait for me outside Dr. Q’s clinic so I wouldn’t have to hail another taxi for a return trip to my home.  This allowed us another 30 minutes to talk more before we finally arrived back at the West Gate of Sichuan University.

            When it came time for me to pay, I really wanted to do something special for Mr. Liu to make up for my ugly behavior.  Since we don’t tip in China, and no driver would ever even dream of accepting a tip, I had to think of something else.

            Then I remembered  Mr. Liu had mentioned his daughter was turning 8 in two days. A gift of money would be appropriate but there was no way he would possibly take money for his daughter unless. . . . it were presented in a red envelope.

            I quickly pulled out the New Year’s hong bao which was once filled with payment for LF’s clinic treatment.  Quickly, I slipped inside 8 yuan, 1 yuan for each year of his daughter’s life, and presented it to him along with the money for the taxi ride.

            “For your daughter’s birthday,” I smiled.  “Please wish her a happy birthday for me.”

            Mr. Liu hesitated.

            A red envelope can’t really be rejected.  If it’s for a child, and given for an acceptable celebration, he should be willing to take it.  But I wasn’t sure about the protocol at this point, especially since it had Chinese New Year’s greetings on it and I didn’t  personally know his daughter or his family.  This was an odd gift, coming from a stranger.

            Yet I think Mr. Liu realized my sincere wish to do this.  In a short 1 ½ hours, a relationship had formed.   We were no longer just passenger and driver, but two people who had shared stories, opinions and thoughts.  Now we could be friends.

           Mr. Liu gratefully accepted his daughter’s gift and immediately gave me his telephone number.

            “We must go out to eat,” he said decisively. “You don’t like spicy food but I know a good place without spicy food.  I think you’d like it.  We can eat together with my family!”

            I thanked Mr. Liu, tucked his number into a safe place in my billfold, and got out of the cab with the dog.

            Our long trip together had ended.

             My new acquaintance gave me a final wave, then drove off down the street in search of other passengers.

              I have many telephone numbers that are given to me by people I have briefly met.  Most of them, I throw away or forget about. But in this case, Mr. Liu’s number is one I’m always going to hold onto.  I need a good reminder.  First, to keep that nasty side of me in check and, secondly, to treasure those overzealous buys of Chinese New Year hong baos.  After all, you never know when an out-of-season red envelope might come in handy.


            From Chengdu, wishing you all a “Ping An!” (Peace)




United Methodists:    UMCOR Advance #982450, International Disaster Response, China Earthquake


Others:  www.amityfoundation.org




About connieinchina

I have been in the Asia region for 30 years as an English language teacher. 28 of those have been spent with the Amity Foundation, a Chinese NGO that works in all areas of development for the Chinese people. Amity teachers are placed at small colleges throughout China as instructors of English language majors in the education field. In other words, my students will one day be English teachers themselves in their small villages or towns once they graduate. Currently, this is my 13th year in Luzhou Vocational and Technical College. The college is located in Luzhou city (loo-joe), Sichuan Province, a metropolis of 5 million people located next to the Yangtze River .
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