Question: Some are very particular that red packets (angbaos) given must be with amounts of money ending with 8 (which sounds in a Chinese dialect like ‘huat’, which means ‘prosper’), and not 4 (which sounds like ‘die’). I would like to NOT follow the crowd blindly on this custom, but am worried that relationships might sour if I do not stick to it. What should I do?
Answer: While giving in the above customary manner might express good will, to see it as a must makes it a superstition, which anyway, ‘applies’ to a language’s offshoot only. What more, a word sounding like something does not simply cause that thing to happen. If it does, everyone can simply give each other $8 to proper without fail. Yet, prosperity requires diligence, not a number, while thinking a number can lead to prosperity might lead to laziness, the opposite of diligence.
To not strain relationships, while not following a custom blindly, the latter of which will unfortunately help to perpetuate unquestioning adherence to it, why not consider giving an amount ending with another number, that is neither 8 nor 4, such as 2, 6 or 0?
Incidentally, it is another Chinese custom to prefer even numbers in money gifts for celebratory matters, in the hope that the auspicious matter doubles (好事成双). This contrasts with what considered ‘inauspicious’, such as the number of days in a wake (3, 5 or 7) being odd, in the hope that such matters do not repeat. While there is some thoughtful thinking behind these, to express good wishes, we have to remember that wishes alone do not dictate reality, as auspicious matters do not always double up, and inauspicious matters are not always singular.
When giving the said red packet, give with lots of good will, so that it is your goodwill that is appreciated and thus remembered, not the lack of 8. This restores the right perspective on why red packets are given in Chinese culture. It is the giving to express goodwill, good wishes and gratitude that matters, not so much the amount, or exact number of dollars.
It is good to guide others to rethink about their adherence to certain customs, be they secular or religious, especially if their attachment is due to delusional greed, that causes suffering to themselves and others. May we continue to reflect on the true intentions behind customs, such as goodwill, so that it is not lost. The worst case would be to follow and pass down customs blindly, to be misunderstood and unnecessary burdens for future generations. This IS loss of goodwill!