Why Is Joss Money Being Put in Red Envelopes? Asian Diaspora Outraged By Cultural Faux Pas Amid Lunar New Year

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Red envelopes filled with lucky money are synonymous to Lunar New Year, but Asians have one message to those joining in on the festivities who may be less familiar with certain traditions: do not put joss paper, or “hell money,” into red envelopes. The message is being passed along as the University of Toronto comes under fire after staff members of the graduate students’ residence hall handed out red envelopes filled with joss paper in a faux pas some students have called disrespectful at best, and a threat of violence at worst. 

“We were all shocked upon hearing this,” co-presidents of the school’s Canadian Asian Student Society told The Globe. “We are disappointed by the Graduate House’s lack of research into cultural sensitivity and proper etiquette.”

The school later explained in a statement that the gesture was a mistake. 

“Unfortunately, incorrect bank notes were unintentionally placed into the red envelopes,” read a statement by the school addressed to media outlets like Globe and Mail. “The University of Toronto deeply regrets this error. 

“The Lunar New Year festival should be joyous and peaceful,” the statement continued. “The University is deeply committed to the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion. We will continue our important educational efforts to better understand our diverse communities, and to foster inclusion across our three campuses.”

But for many, including nearly 7,500 people who signed a change.org campaign demanding a plan to prevent a cultural misstep like this from happening again, the damage has been done. 

Added to the pain and frustration is that the University of Toronto’s misstep is just one of many instances joss paper has been misused this Lunar New Year.

The Significance of Joss Paper 

During the Lunar New Year, many East and Southeast Asian cultures share a tradition of handing loved ones red envelopes, or red pockets, filled with real money as a sign of blessings and good luck in the year ahead. They’re not to be filled with joss paper, which is sometimes called incense papers, or “hell money,” which is used as an offering to the dead in Buddhism and Taoism.

“Today, I was quite happy to hear that my lil sister got an Ang Pao (Red Packet) from her school,” read a post on the popular Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits. “Its an Aussie school so you wouldn’t think they’d be doing this kinda thing right?”

The post was accompanied by photos of joss paper, with the words “Hell bank note” written clearly in English across the center and a smaller mention of “currency for the other world” in one corner, and the red envelopes they came in.

“When she handed it over to my mum and I, our jaws dropped,” the post continued, “A bit too soon to give to an 11 year old.” 

Paper offerings, including joss paper, are typically burned to pay respects to ancestors or deities in accordance with the traditional belief that it is possible to communicate with the spirit world through the fire’s smoke.

Mentioning the dead around Lunar New Year is taboo in some East and Southeast Asian cultures.

While the person who shared the post seemed to take the misstep lightly, many commenters were outraged. “It’s as good as telling the person to die,” one person wrote.

“They really should have consulted or at least do some research to understand the culture before doing this,” another wrote. “For me this is totally unacceptable.”

Those sentiments were shared by some University of Toronto students and faculty following the similar incident that occurred on campus. 

“The [sheer] ignorance and discrimination toward Asian has been continuously downplayed,” read a comment on the change.org petition created in response to the incident at the University of Toronto. 

An Explanation That Some Say Is Too Little, Too Late

While the school shared an explanation and apology to media outlets, some students and faculty said their reasoning was inadequate after officials only issued an apology written in Chinese on its WeChat page, a Chinese social media app, The Star reported. 

“The brief apology on social media issued by the University of Toronto’s Graduate House is not sufficient,” the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice said in a statement. “This lack of care reflects the all-too-common attitude that anti-Asian racism is to be treated lightly or is less deserving of attention.” 

The incident was especially hurtful given the school’s especially large Asian population, some said. About 15,000 international students from China – the most of any international student population – and even more Canadians of Chinese or East Asian descent are enrolled at the university, according to its website. 

A U of T student, who said she and other students were educated on Western holidays like Christmas and given lessons on respectful customs in Canada upon enrollment, wished university staff was also educated on Chinese culture and traditions, The Star reported. 

Some questioned whether the incident was intentional. 

“How can this be an honest mistake? Such paper money is not easily available,” read another comment on the change.org petition.

Others went as far as to suggest the move was a hate-fueled threat, especially in light of the rise of anti-Asian hate. 

“Giving it to someone – esp during a superstitious holiday that is supposed to bring health, wealth, luck for the year – wishes death upon them,” an assistant professor at the nearby University of Waterloo tweeted.

“Giving hell money to a living person is an extremely offensive gesture as it conveys: ‘I wish you were dead’. What Graduate House has done is derogatory and has traumatized students,” the change.org petition read. 

A History of Missteps Where Joss Paper Are Concerned  

Last month, as media outlets began sharing recipes in time for Lunar New Year, The Guardian and BBC Food came under similar fire for styling photos of the dishes with joss paper. 

Both photos have since been taken down, and a statement at the bottom of the original recipe from The Guardian states, “The image accompanying the recipe for pork and crab dumplings was amended on 17 January 2022 to remove joss paper shown next to the plate in the original picture. Such paper is burned for the dead at funerals and in other rituals in China and other parts of Asia. We apologise for this cultural error.”

Joss paper is also circulating on Etsy, with at least one seller describing it as “amazing as decoupage material for something or used decoratively such as a dinner place setting.” 

Another conversation surrounding joss paper appeared on Subtle Asian Traits last summer, with the poster recounting how she noticed a money gun filled with joss paper was being used as a prop at a wedding. 

“It is disrespectful and ignorant to hold a cultural event without consulting people within the cultural community,” the change.org petition said. 

The change.org petition, created by students of the University of Toronto, called for an official apology to all students, mental health support for those hurt by the incident, staff education on best practices when it comes to respecting different cultures and a plan to work with students in the future to avoid instances like this – which the school committed to address in a statement to Inside Edition Digital.

“In response to the matter at Graduate House, we are providing education sessions to staff in order to build capacity and deepen learning about the cultural context of the impact of this incident. Additionally, U of T’s Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office will expand its offerings of educational programming and supports focused on the unique experiences of Asian communities, and to address anti-Asian racism in its many forms,” the statement read.

It continued, “This event has shone further light on our obligation to do more in order to understand and appreciate the depth, diversity and traditions of our community of many cultures. It has also shown us that even as we strive to create a welcoming and inclusive environment, many among us are subject to both overt and subtle racism that must be recognized, acknowledged, challenged and addressed through actions,” the statement read.  

The school also noted that they have conducted an investigation into what led to the error and “concluded that the error was not intentional or malicious.”