Chinese New Year.
While it’s a joyful time that brings together family and friends, the one time in the year where sensitivity gets tossed out, a la an overexuberant yu sheng celebration.
While the fun and feasting are undoubtedly highlights, CNY can also be a stressful occasion that even the friendliest and most sociable among us can struggle to navigate.
If you’ve ever had someone quiz you on your lack of relationship or reproductive success in front of an appreciative audience, you may have an inkling of where this is headed.
To deal with such unpleasant encounters and to make sure you avoid any conversational faux pas yourself, here are five questions that nobody wants to be asked during Chinese New Year.
We suggest printing it out and giving it pride of place next to the bak kwa on the snack table. Ideally, in red ink for better luck.
No boyfriend / girlfriend yet, ah?
CNY gatherings can be an awkward time when you find yourself next to relatives you’ve met only twice in the past five years. It’s instinctive to try and initiate conversation – and the lack of a partner may seem like an obvious place to start.
Even (Especially?) now in the age of Tinder, the course of true love never did run smooth. Perhaps they’ve just been jilted, or experienced a difficult break-up. Or maybe, they’re happy chasing after other passions in life, such that coupling is simply not a priority.
There is so much more that defines someone rather than his or her ability to find a partner. So unless the other party brings it up, do yourself a favour by being more original with your conversation starter.
Try: Asking them if they have any plans to travel in the coming year. Given Singaporeans’ wanderlust, you’ll find yourself in safe territory. If your relative turns out to be a homebody, discuss your auntie’s impressive taitai hairstyle instead.
Deal with it by: Saying that you are enjoying your singlehood. Or you can pretend to tear up out of sadness over a lost love, so it kills the conversation quickly.
Not pregnant yet, ah?
On the surface, this perennial favourite may seem like a light-hearted go-to topic. In actual fact, however, it’s quite the conversational landmine.
Regardless of whether a couple has been married for two months or 20 years, having children is a sensitive topic, especially if you’re not close enough to know their background.
Being childless could just as easily be a lifestyle choice as it could be a source of much pain and heartache. For all you know, the couple could be in the midst of fertility treatments or they could have recently suffered a loss (one in four to six pregnancies result in miscarriage).
However well-meaning your intentions are, you don’t want to dampen the festive mood by inadvertently asking a sensitive question.
Try: Asking them how they are adjusting to married life, if it’s a newly wedded couple you’re talking to. For anyone else, stick to topics with a guaranteed audience response, like how amazing the pineapple tarts are this year.
Deal with it by: Saying you’ll only have a child if they promise to offer babysitting support in future.
How many As did you get last year?
As if school isn’t already stressful enough. Chinese New Year is so close to the end of the previous school year that relatives seldom hide their curiosity about the latest report cards.
Such a question may come from a place of concern, but given how tough the education landscape in Singapore is, it’s hard not to read a competitive element to the query – as though grades are the only gauge of someone’s success.
Slowly but surely, Singapore is evolving the education system to be one that focuses less on grades and bandings and more on holistic development. In the same vein, if you want to avoid causing young relatives to lose their appetite, stick to more palatable topics, please.
Try: Asking them about the latest pop culture happenings. It could be the upcoming DC or Marvel movie or the latest BTS song. Ask the right questions and you may even score brownie points for being that cool uncle/auntie.
Deal with it by: Saying MOE no longer prioritise grades, so why should they?
Still jobless, ah?
It may be your cousin who has recently graduated, or an older relative who lost his job some time ago. While asking after employment status may be an expression of genuine care, you’ll want to be careful with the tone used to broach the topic.
Being unemployed is an uneasy experience at best and a highly stressful one at worst. The last thing you’ll want to do is to sound judgmental or as though you are looking down on them. And if you’re going to go there, it’s best if you’re armed with actual useful advice, or better yet, able to offer practical help. That’s what family is for, right?
Try: Asking them what they’ve been up to recently, and leaving it to them to confide in you about their job search if they want to.
Deal with it by: Saying you don’t want to make a hasty decision, so you’re taking your time to find the right offer.
Did you gain weight?
I never understood what is the intended outcome of asking such a question. You won’t be congratulated for having a sharp eye, and you would most definitely succeed in insulting someone.
What may seem like a harmless off-the-cuff observation can actually cause a lot of hurt and embarrassment. It doesn’t help that the comments are usually expressed in a less than complimentary tone that borders on fat-shaming.
Let’s make one thing clear. A person’s weight is nobody’s concern apart from his or her own, and commenting on it openly in front of everyone is a definite mood killer.
Try: Asking them about their new haircut or complimenting them on their festive outfit. Keep your chatter pleasant and complimentary if you don’t want to be avoided like a person with the plague for future gatherings.
Deal with it by: Smiling dangerously, and saying – and so?
At the end of the day, getting through CNY without triggering someone else is not all that difficult. Just avoid asking questions that we wouldn’t want to be asked ourselves.
If all else fails, and you find yourself in conversational deep water, do yourself a favour and eat your way out of trouble.
Having another piece of bak kwa may not be good for your health, but it sure beats putting your foot in your mouth.