Last year during Chinese New Year, a university in Canada went viral for the wrong reason.
To celebrate Chinese New Year 2022 then, the University of Toronto thought that it would be nice gesture to leave a basket of celebratory red packets at the service desks of dormitories, both as a sign of cultural acceptance and to join in the festivities.
Unfortunately, this gesture was not appreciated in the least when students opened the red packets only to find hell notes inside, inexpensive paper money usually used as offerings to the dead.
I know that the university curriculum can be hellish sometimes, but there’s no need to wish death upon us so quickly, especially during the festive season?
It’s like a miserly university employee was mulling over how to celebrate the Lunar New Year and incidentally stumbled across a shop selling joss sticks and incense paper—basically a business that makes money off the deceased—and saw how cheap the paper money was, then thought it was a brilliant idea to put hell notes as a substitute to real money.
The worst part is, the words “HELL BANK NOTE” are literally printed in English on the back and front of paper money itself.
How on earth did you miss this?
You don’t even have the excuse of not knowing how to read the language.
Come on, if you wanted Chinese money, One Canadian Dollar is almost equivalent to 5 Chinese Yuan, you won’t even be losing out that much if you did the conversion and placed them in the red packets.
Or do it the tried-and-true Primary School style: chocolate gold coins are always welcomed.
The University’s Apology for the Blunder
Naturally, the blunder at the Graduate House residence made its way to the social media platforms, including Xiaohongshu, where the students posted the e-mails from the Graduate House staff and images of the hell money.
Soon, the University of Toronto realised the huge mistakes they had made.
An apology, written in Chinese, was posted on University of Toronto’s official WeChat, stating that the staff had unwittingly placed the incorrect banknotes into the red packets while preparing for a display for the holiday festivities.
Before they realised their mistake, the envelopes had already been taken by the students.
In the statement, it also read, “The University of Toronto deeply regrets this error. The Lunar New Year festival should be joyous and peaceful. 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.”
When the university administration was inquired about whether they consulted any members of the Asian community before putting up the envelopes, the university did not respond.
I guess you know what that means.
In one of the later e-mails, a Graduate House service employee claimed that they were originally not aware of the significance behind the currency.
You’re working in a university, an educational institution focused on high-level research and studies.
Or you know, you could Google it.
The Negative Impact Caused by the Red Packets
When your culture is being badly misunderstood, it will naturally leave a bad taste in your mouth.
One of the complainants, a Master of Social Work Student by the name of Patricia Quan, wrote on behalf of some of the Asian students and herself, claiming that they were upset by what she called “an act of cultural misappropriation”, and said that “they do not feel safe enough to advocate for themselves”.
Due to the negative impact the incident caused, Dr David Kim, the Dean of the residence, personally wrote to the complainant and offered his sincere apologies, promising that they would take the “appropriate actions” to rectify this mistake.
“My family and I were also taking part in Lunar New Year celebrations yesterday and I can understand why this would be especially upsetting,” the publicised e-mail read.
Somehow, this statement rubs off the wrong way too, like it’s saying that I can’t be a racist because I also have a Chinese friend.
Besides the Graduate House and University stepping forward with their apologies, other members of the Asian community like the University of Toronto’s Canadian Asian Student Society and The Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice came forward to voice their anger and disappointment.
The Co-Presidents of the Canadian Asian Student Society wrote to The Globe that they were “disappointed by the Graduate House’s lack of research into cultural sensitivity and proper etiquette”, adding that this mistake could have been easily avoided if the staff had just consulted any Chinese student or staff member.
The Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice issued a media release the same Friday morning, explaining the significance of the Lunar New Year and its traditions, which is mostly the celebration of life, longevity, reunions, and auspiciousness, which runs completely contrary to the funerary notes given.
In an interview, the organisation’s president, Amy Go said, “It’s very frustrating given that the last year and a half, where anti-Asian racism was so much on the rise and on people’s attention… and to have the University of Toronto being so insensitive and disrespectful and totally insulting the community.”
Truthfully, you’d expect a university to be one of the last places to commit such an egregious mistake, but alas, we were wrong.
To the University of Toronto, and for the sake of Canada’s mosaic image of cultural diversity and acceptance, active steps towards cultural sensitivity and anti-oppression are certainly due.
Or maybe…just learn to Google. Or read.
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Featured Image: Reddit (r/UofT)