Boring Essays and Lamborghini Ang Pows

SAY you’re 12, or still 11, and you’re tasked to write an essay, some meaningful post-Chinese New Year reflection. You know the drill: you must write a composition of at least 150 words about “a memorable festive event,” and it should be based on one or more of the visual aids—the usual three boxes of flat, sometimes cryptic, two-dimensional line drawings.

“Oh, man!” you sigh. “This has got to be worse than the last one.”

And that last one, it’s true, wasn’t all that bad because with A Narrow Escape, you could be more creative, more imaginative, spicing it up with some adventure, that sort of “in the nick of time” thing. But this one? This one’s different. It’s so … it’s so boring.

Your eyes scan the boxes top-down, then up again, and you decide: “No, not the first picture.” Good call because you don’t have any good words or good phrases to describe food. “Scrumptious, how about scrumptious?” you light up. “Or delectable?” Definitely not delicious. Teacher say use only the good words, the good phrases, the ones other students don’t normally use. And delicious, like happy, is too common, too plebeian. You’ve gunned down two good words, but still, you give up. You must capture the mood of that family of six around their happy, noisy New Year table, and that’s just too hard.

OK, so you move on swiftly, decisively. You go with the other two pictures.

Picture #2: A tightly framed shot of ten, maybe a dozen ang pows—not exactly sure because the drawing’s pretty bad—all fanned out in the hands of a kid with chubby fingers. You don’t have chubby fingers, but you’re going to pretend you do because you’ve decided to go with a first-person narrative.

Picture #3: A doe-eyed, chubby piggy bank with lashes that would make even Bambi jealous.

Then, you start your story, telling yourself you must write more than 350 words, 400, even 500 would be nice. Only losers write in the 150-word vicinity, and losers don’t score.

It was the first day of the Chinese New Year, you begin. It is my favorite time of the year because I get plenty of hongbaos, which literally means “red packets” in Chinese. My grandmother calls it “ang pow,” which literally means the same thing in dialect. My sister and I wore our best new clothes. Auntie Coco helped to style my hair with gel, so that my father and my mother said I looked very striking and prepossessing. True enough, even my grandfather and grandmother said the same thing when I visited them in the morning. It is a ritual to visit the elders first thing on the first day of the New Year as a sign of respect and filial piety. Filial piety, according to Chinese custom and Confucian culture, is very important. To do this, the young must give oranges to the old. My mother likes me to give my grandparents four, not the usual two. After this, I must say several auspicious Chinese words, which are like poetry, associated with the New Year. Then, they will say nice things like I’m a good boy and may I grow up quickly, then I put two hands out respectfully to get one hongbao from my grandfather and another from my grandmother. This year, I remembered to bow.

Now, that’s 217 words already. You feel safe, smug even, because you’ve followed your teacher’s strategy—always have an introduction to your essay. What a nice long paragraph, you tell yourself. Hey, you’ve even answered the 5 W’s and the lone H: where (my grandparents’ home), when (first day of the New Year), why (it’s my favorite time because), what (I defined hongbao), who (I named everyone, even Auntie Coco), how (I give oranges to get hongbao).

Now, it’s on to Picture #2 and Picture #3 because you must answer the question and not write out of point—the worst writing sin ever—so you chew on what your teacher calls facts and feelings.

Facts: You received plenty of hongbaos, but you didn’t know exactly how many because you don’t carry a handbag, like your mother or your sister, but your mother reported that in total you received $686.

Feelings: you were elated (a better word than happy); that’s more than enough money to buy the over-the-ear headphones you want so badly, the sort that two of your classmates have.

Total wordcount: 489. You’re thrilled, it’s your second highest ever, 32 words fewer than your Startling Discovery essay, the second or third one before A Narrow Escape.

Well, now that you’ve told your story, would you allow me to share mine? And if you don’t mind—I know, I know, you’ll tell me “Teacher say no need”—I’m going to give my story a title, anyway. Here goes:

My Lamborghini New Year

Each year, the only ang pows with crisp, blue notes come from Grandpa and Grandma, Por Por, and my folks. That’s not to say my relatives are cheap—there are 12 uncles and aunties on my mother’s side, and six on my father’s, not counting some married cousins here and there, and three grand aunts.

From the hoard my sister and I gather each year, there’ll always be a handful stuffed with red notes—two with a single bill, another two with two, and an irresistible one with four. The game we end up playing after the first day’s catch is a maddening quiz with no answers: Who gave this? Who gave that? Who are the faces behind these generous souls?

This year, we had the good fortune to encounter a generous soul whose face we never got to meet or ever will, but whose name rings loud and clear like a roaring Lamborghini engine. Uncle VT, that’s what we’ve called him. Yes, VT for V12—not the unglamorous-sounding Wee Teck—for, bless his heart, he had slipped us, care of our father, two checkbook-sized ang pows gold-embossed with the signature crest of the Lamborghini bull and that legendary name.

“How many kids do you have, Weng?” he asked, at the end of a business lunch on the last day of the New Year.

“Two,” my father replied.

Out came two red packets, which obliged my father to ask the same question of his latest, newest business associate.

“Five,” he said.

Ouch! Five for two? It seemed like a bad deal, until my sister and I opened our velvet, vermillion pouches. No, we didn’t find red notes, but blue ones—two at that, so that Uncle VT’s two Lamborghinis would beat my father’s not-so-sexy five by a cool hundred bucks.

Wordcount: 305

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