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Wednesday, April 24, 2024
The Observer

Happy New Year of the Dog and ‘gōng xǐ fā cái’

Gōng xǐ fā cái: 恭喜发财

Gōng Xǐ: to congratulate.

Fā: to prosper.

Cái: money, wealth.

Gōng xǐ fā cái: wishing someone prosperity and wealth.

When I was little, my deepest fear was being dragged along by my parents to visit relatives during Spring Festival. All the adults would gather and talk about the stock market, real estate, insurance or some other complicated thing that I would never understand. Little and helpless, I always carefully hid behind my mom and peeked into the adult world with terror.

Not before long, Auntie Ye would see me, and then as if she had discovered a new continent, she would point at me and cheerfully announce to everyone: “There she is!”

That moment, my hands would start to feel clammy as I gripped tighter to my shirt. Inevitably, heart pounding, I was about to go through my least favorite procedure of Spring Festival.

I would unwillingly come toward Auntie Ye. My lips would curve up to an obligatory smile. My hands would form a traditional fist and palm salute, and I would say with a little girl’s adorable voice, “Happy New Year, and gōng xǐ fā cái!”

Auntie Ye would look satisfied and would then stroke my hair, while frivolously commenting on how much taller I’ve grown, or asking about whether I got good grades or not.

I then would go on and repeat the same phrase over and over again to every other person in the room. It was like being trapped in an endless loophole that I could never escape. Oh, how much I wished we could start dinner already.

I passionately dreaded the getting together of acquaintances and relatives back then, and I still don’t particularly know why. Maybe I was a shy and unsociable little kid. Maybe I was ashamed of my not-so-good grades. Or maybe I got tired of greeting my relatives. But overall, most importantly, I hated the phrase “gōng xǐ fā cái.”

In school, we were taught that wanting too much money meant greed. It seemed contradictory to me that the adults still secretly hoped others to wish them much wealth and prosperity at the beginning of a new year. The phrase “gōng xǐ fā cái” sounded superficial to me. The person who said it might not really mean it because he actually hoped that he himself was better off than everyone else. Plus, everyone repeats the same phrase to everyone. Why didn’t we wish each other good health or something else that was more meaningful?

It was just too much for 5-year-old me.

I often thought to myself then, that if I were to be with my friends during the holiday season, we would definitely never repeat this redundant phrase to each other. I wanted to be cool and saying this old-fashioned phrase apparently made me less cool. Oh well, I was in the phase that every 5-year-old would go through — thinking that they were smarter and more interesting than adults, loathing a material and monetized world and refusing to say “gōng xǐ fā cái.” For me, it was more fun to watch TV cartoons and dream of a world full of fairies and castles and princesses.

As I grew older, I started to gain the ability to “mingle with adults” through practice and somehow, I stopped hating “gōng xǐ fā cái” so much. It became more of an obligation and less of a burden. You say, “gōng xǐ fā cái.” He replies, “gōng xǐ fā cái.” That’s a polite and delightful exchange between two people who are both celebrating Chinese Lunar New Year. Yet somehow, as I cared less and less, I still hear the phrase less frequently than before. Like any other holiday tradition that people of modern era abandon, the phrase became more or less like a very optional sauce that comes with the side dish on the table — people don’t even notice it exists.

Yet last year, I started to fully appreciate the phrase when I first celebrated the Chinese Lunar New Year abroad, alone and far away from my family.

When the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, I was FaceTiming my family. My 5-year-old niece presented herself in front of the phone camera, and with an obligatory smile on her face, she murmured something. In midst of fireworks, people shouting, counting down to the new year and kids screaming, I could hardly hear what she said, but I was still positively certain that she said “gōng xǐ fā cái.”

As I heard that phrase, though vaguely, a sense of familiarity overwhelmed me. I was to remember that distant era when people still said “gōng xǐ fā cái” to each other. So there I was, sitting in my bedroom alone on the Lunar New Year’s Eve and letting myself drown in a sea of nostalgia. It was not just a repetitive and redundant phrase, as it embodies what we’ve always hoped for — a prosperous and content life. The phrase also contains the blessings that people in the past had for us. Had we accomplished what they hoped for? In that moment the past echoed with the phrase and I could almost see how our ancestors in ancient times started to build their civilization upon a hope for prosperity and wealth — all summarized into this simple phrase.

We are forgetting to say “gōng xǐ fā cái,” and sadly, we are forgetting what we were living for.

Last week, despite the soggy and gloomy weather in South Bend and multiple dreadful midterms, it was still joyous for the Chinese students on campus, as we celebrated the Chinese Lunar New Year — the Year of the Dog.

We made dumplings, played card games and started talking about what we hoped for the new year to come. I smiled, and I said, “gōng xǐ fā cái.”

Erin Shang seeks to find the black and white from this world of messed up palette, the polygons from monotonous lines, and passion from the shattered dreams in this brave new world we’re all living in. She is a sophomore studying Finance and ACMS at Notre Dame, living in Cavanaugh Hall. Erin welcomes comments of any kind, and can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.