Navigating awkward or intrusive moments during Lunar New Year (and all year round)
The Lunar New Year isn't the only time of year you have to deal with intrusive questions from well-meaning relatives. Learn how to navigate them.

For many, the start of a new year involves journeying over land, air, or even sea to pay homage to our elders and relatives. In the best version of this story, we can distribute (or even receive) red packets, stay up late into the night playing mahjong or capsa, and return home with full bellies and happy smiles.

For many, the reality…is a little more intense. (Like staring down the Landlady from Kung Fu Hustle).

Imagine: 24 hours under fire from well-meaning aunts, uncles, cousins, great-aunts, great-uncles, grandparents (you get the point), eager to hear about every single aspect of your life. For some, Lunar New year celebrations aren’t just uncomfortable — they can also be associated with painful memories or unaddressed wounds.

It’s no wonder so many have interpreted extended lockdowns and pandemic restrictions as blessings in disguise.

The holidays should be a time of reunion and camaraderie, and hopefully for you, it will be. But if you’re antsy about potential intrusive questions, controversial topics, and super-judgmental looks from the people you love most, then here’s a guide for smoother sailing. Whether you’re celebrating Tet, a holiday get-together, or simply trying to enjoy a better relationship with relatives (or even colleagues!), we hope these tips will be helpful!

1aBe as boring and uncontroversial as possible

Family conversations usually gravitate to what’s interesting. You can try out a modified “grey rock” approach, which is usually reserved for abusive and manipulative relationships. The goal of this approach is to make people lose interest in you, so they’ll move on to more enticing topics. Here are some ideas:

  • Oh, I’m doing well.
  • I have all I need!
  • Nothing much to report on my end.
  • You’ll be among the first to know if I have major news! ?

1b. Instead, make someone else the star of the show

Sitting through a work meeting with a back full of Tiger balm can feel way more preferable to your yearly interrogation with a gaggle of grannies. But what if you redirected their prying energy back to them?

Ikea Singapore highlighted its own responses to awkward family questions on their Instagram.

For some, the annual family get-together may be the only time they’re surrounded by so many people. A number of relatives ask prying questions because they want to receive prying questions; the reunion is a rare chance for them to feel cared for and appreciated.

Did you know: Anywhere from 10-20% of elderly/geriatric adults in Asia exhibit symptoms of loneliness and depression.

If this is the case, then lean into it — a cheery smile and a few nods can help take some of the heat off and help your elders feel loved.

  • I heard you went to ____ recently! How did it go?
  • What have you been thinking about recently?
  • What are your plans this week?
  • You’re wearing a beautiful dress. Where did you get it?

“Oh, look at her,” they might say later, after the crowd has dispersed. “She’s so nice and charming.”

You can use this kind of redirection any time, not just when you’re celebrating the Lunar New Year or Tet.

2. Give the people what they want

When we look deeper into our relatives’ nosy niceties, we’ll find that in many cases, their questions are misguided attempts to ascertain that we’re doing okay. Younger people may experience more frustration around this, because “being okay” often involves monetary wealth and professional success. But if you can convince your well-meaning relatives that you’re actually doing alright financially/professionally/romantically, there’s a chance they’ll ease up on the intensity of their inquiries.

Since you weren’t planning on telling your great-great-aunt about your latest breakup anyways, why not just give her what she wants? It might be as simple as explaining that you’re already happy or seeing someone (even if it’s not 100% true yet) — and repeating that ad infinitum until she gets the point.

Note: Small white lies can help smoothen the relationship between distant relatives you meet once a year. But we always recommend being honest about what you’re going through with those that you trust.

3. Treat older relatives with respect and compassion

The decision to attend your family’s Lunar New Year gathering can have you fighting for your life. Worse, it can reopen old wounds and doubts about your self-worth. But though it’s painful, it can help to remember that our elders grew and struggled in a completely different world than ours. They developed their own processes and perspectives and ideas, and followed those concepts for decades. Now, they apply that understanding to you, not knowing that things have changed in the time that transpired. Their judgments of you can feel bitter and painful, even if you know they’re not true.

When you can, please cherish the genuine love and care behind such messages. Your relatives are deserving of compassion — in many cases, hurtful parents and relatives have their own unresolved traumas and childhood pain, which is why they can’t express love and care in the way we need. That doesn’t mean they’re malicious.

Though you may not be able to undo the generational trauma, you can be the first in your family to pursue kindness, forgiveness, and acceptance. If it helps, try thinking of older relatives as people from another era. We’d smile knowingly at time travelers who had trouble understanding how our world worked, and recognize that there’s a lot of work to do to bring them up to speed. We can do the same for our family.

4. Practice saying, “That’s great!”

Tension abounds in large families, which lend themselves well to forced competitions between siblings and cousins. There are two approaches you can take here.

First, you can just repeat “Wow” and “That’s great for them” throughout the night. It can sting a little, but it’s important to remember that these relatives don’t know what it’s like to be in your shoes on a day-to-day basis. You can appease their desire to crow by saying:

  • That’s great!
  • I’m happy for them!
  • You must be so happy! ?

The second option provides more of a solution. if you enjoy a close relationship with your same-aged relatives, then you could band together to try and put a stop to the one-upmanship. If Cousin Kevin is constantly being praised for a thriving career, maybe he could highlight Cousin Sarah’s recent promotion, or an artistic endeavor that she’s really proud of. If all of you make a joint effort to repeat this throughout the night, chances are the conversation will drift to other topics instead.

The second approach brings twofold benefits: it helps to highlight the wins of those who are less traditionally successful, and provides a way out for those who hate being turned into the show-off.

5. Be personal, but not sensitive

If your relatives continue to prod for answers, you can meet in the middle by divulging personal, but not sensitive topics. You could discuss your opinion on a new Netflix show, something that happened in the news, or your favorite foods.

Photo by HyggeLab Concept on Unsplash

When it comes to work, finances, or a relationship, you can say things like:

  • I’m seeing someone. Wish me luck!
  • I’m not seeing anyone right now. But here’s hoping I will in the future!
  • I’m working on a project at work, it’s quite fun!
  • Oh, I’m saving up, slowly but surely. Haha~
  • It’s hard to say..

6. Stay off social media for a while

If you’re on social media, posts of others’ happy gatherings can become overwhelming, especially if your own experience isn’t as smooth. Don’t feel guilty or strange if you need to disconnect or seek help — support center Samaritans Hong Kong, for example, says that their bilingual help hotline experiences spikes in activity during the Lunar New Year.

7. Limit your time with people who make you feel negatively

Some family members, colleagues, or even friends are alright in low doses, but insufferable after a certain threshold. You can get around this by limiting your time with them — and blaming it on a different engagement. For example, if you have a non-negotiable family dinner but you don’t want to stick around until the wee hours, you can excuse yourself after the meal and explain that you have a document you forgot to send for work.

You can use our tips to avoid some of the discomfort around the Lunar New Year season, but they could also be useful when you return to the workplace, too. Whether they’re in the office or among your family members, try to be compassionate to the Tigers in your life this year — you might find a fuzzy, soft heart beneath their stoic exteriors.

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