Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Oats as a gift?

Chinese New Year is upon us soon, this Sunday, and I'm feelings the pangs of homesickness a bit during times like this.

For some reason we have not been able to get to Oriental City or the nearby Chinese supermarkets to top up on festive supplies. So when husband came home with a tin of goodies from M, his Malaysian colleague, I was delighted.

When son came home this evening he asked to try the thin wafer-like biscuits he'd seen me eating.

'I'd like to try the oats,' he said.

I could not understand why he kept calling the biscuits (which we call 'love letter') 'oats'.

Then I realized that he was reading the label on the tin the 'love letters' were in. It was indeed a 'Quaker Oats' tin.

What son did not realize was that M had re-used a tin for the 'love letters'. She had also taken the trouble to cut out a Chinese character ('happiness', gold on red background, very auspicious colours) and stuck it on the top of the tin.

This is reminiscent of the sort of gift-giving we did when I was growing up.

In the run-up to Chinese New Year, tins, jam jars and any other suitable reusable containers were collected, cleaned, dried in the sun, lined with greaseproof or brown paper, and we put food inside to be given away. A bit of red paper or other decoration was stuck on the outside to denote that it is a gift.

None of these 'cakes in a plastic dish, sealed in a plastic bag and further sealed in a cardboard box business'. And loaded with loads of E-numbers and preservatives.

It is the hustle and bustle of buying raw ingredients, cooking, baking, and distributing them which make up my memories of Chinese New Year. Much of these are gone now.

We simply shop till we drop because all the special foods we used to make at home are now mass-produced in factories and can be bought any where.

I explained to son how tins and jam jars are all we had to put food in before plastic containers were invented.

'So every thing was recycled?' he asked.

'Yes, every thing that could be re-used was used again.'

He is pretty clued up on the concept of recycling as it is, but still, some practices 'of old' and from another culture are still alien to him.

No expensive paper gift wrap either, although M did put her gifts in a nice paper shopping bag she had been given.

The practice of gift exchange is a common topic of study by social anthropologists. While the western culture is big on gifts at Christmas, weddings, and flowers at funerals, etc, the Chinese tend to deal solely with money at weddings and funerals. But specific gifts are given at certain times of year.

I remember cousins (from my father's side) visiting us in the run-up to Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival with appropriate festive foods (in paper bags provided by the shops). Father, being the patriarch of the family, was duly presented with these gifts: dried mushrooms, Chinese sausages, waxed duck, barbecued pork, etc at New Year and 'mooncakes' and pomelo (a citrus fruit) at Mid-Autumn.

The cousins would stay for a short chat, drink a cup of tea, etc, and would soon take their leave. Father, or Mum, would then show their appreciation by giving these cousins a 'hong bao' (red packet) with money inside.

The phrase they used was 'yau lei yau hoey' (things come and go), signifying the reciprocity of the relationship.

In short, the younger relations are duty-bound to buy those gifts for the older generation, not the other way around. The older generation give them some cash in a red packet in return, for 'good luck'.

Then on the first day of Chinese New Year, these cousins would all take turns to come to our flat, pay their respects to my parents, give the unmarried cousins (including me, for many, many years) red packets (with money) and their children were, in turn, given red packets by my parents. My married siblings also gave these 'hong bao' to the children of our cousins, the next generation down.

My siblings and I would then troop over to the matriarch (Grandmother) on my mother's side of the family, and the customs are replayed again in a different household, with cousins from mother's side of the family.

This was repeated year after year for as long as I could remember, ceasing only when Grandmother and later Mum died. The matriarch was gone and with her passing went their responsibility of gift-giving, and with it, the mandatory Chinese New Year visits.

But my siblings and I still continue to visit the oldest surviving aunt on mother's side.

While there was a patriarch/matriarch, tradition ensures that us cousins met up at least once a year. Without one, our only meetings are now at weddings and funerals.

'Do not look a gift-horse in the mouth', they say.

Is that why son thinks we had been given a special kind of 'oats'?

Also, I wonder what some of my friends in the UK would think if I gave them some home-made cakes, etc, in an old tin.

Back to Organic-Ally.


Tracy said...

I'd be extremely pleased with home-made cakes in an old tin. One of the reasons that we make gifts where possible and especially make food gifts from scratch is that we want our children to know where things come from. We provide the missing link so that they don't think everything just comes from shops, or out of jars and cans.

Anonymous said...

Me too. I make all my own cake, some bread and most meals are from scratch. My kids love to come home to the smell of baking and my husband too. When my mother comes to stay she usually brings a tin of rock cakes and a jar of her home made marmalade - I expect to be doing the same when my children are grown upand out in the world. Actually, food from an old tin usually has more appeal than something out of plastic, after all, plastic is the curse of the age. Lyds