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Forced Family Fun: Origami

Or, "Pick Your Paper Wisely"

A tabletop containing an ipad displaying instructions for an origami project, some completed origami flowers, a piece of joss paper, and two hands which are folding a piece of joss paper
That would be joss paper on the left. Almost looks like napkins, does it not?

Recently two of my oldest son’s Forced Family Fun choices came together in a highly unsatisfying way.

My oldest, 18, enjoys aspects of Asian culture. For his FFF choice many months ago, we went downtown to a large Asian grocery store so he could stock up on tea. We milled through the aisles, sometimes mystified at what we saw, trying to understand how one would use this or that food.

We stumbled on what we thought were party supplies and picked up a pack of what we presumed were some very beautiful paper napkins with red and gold design inside a cream border. “Sure, throw them in the shopping basket,” I said. They might be nice to use at Christmas, I thought.

When we got them home and opened them, we found not the usual four-layered paper of a standard disposable napkin. Instead, these were single sheets of stiff, completely impervious paper. They absorbed about as well as those brown paper towels you find in elementary schools, which is to say, not at all.

What is this?

With a little research, we discovered the paper’s actual name: joss paper. If you google it, the image that appears is exactly like the pack we brought home.

Turns out the intention of joss paper is to participate in ancestor worship. Chinese tradition holds that the deceased have similar needs as the living, and the living can help pay for a few of those necessities by burning this “spirit money.”


Definitely not napkins.


A couple of months later, during the Christmas season, my son tried to repurpose the joss paper by making paper chains out of it to decorate. But the squares were so small that when cut into strips, the paper chains were underwhelming.

Strike two.


Two weeks ago, for his Forced Family Fun choice, my son chose origami. He would lead the rest of us in making a flower.

“We need to cut some paper down to the right size,” he said.

“How about using the joss paper?” I suggested, stupidly. It was square, I figured, so why shouldn’t it work? Plus, we had about 500 sheets of it. And the gold would look pretty.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

We each got our joss paper and started folding, following my oldest’s directions, which he called out from a website.

Problem #1: This wasn’t a beginner’s project. Most of us were struggling to follow the directions from the start. So when he would say something like, “This part is challenging,” we groaned. We found the whole thing challenging.

But we did our best, creasing and un-creasing, using the lines to guide us.

“This is just like making a paper airplane,” I said. (I was having disturbing flashbacks to a job I once had doing before-school care at the YMCA, when I had to bring in my own activities to keep the kids from killing one another. For a while, we did a lot of paper airplanes, which was entertaining until it turned into races and competitions, which just made the kids want to kill one other all over again.)

Problem #2: The more we folded, the more we realized that joss paper was also no good for complex origami. Traditionally, it might be used to make a simple object called an ingot that represented money. But as we worked on these flowers, the paper began to break down rather than hold its folds. The gold was wearing off on our fingers. What should have been crisp creases were turning into soft mounds, like trying to pipe too-warm icing onto a cake.

“The paper is, admittedly, not ideal,” my son said.

That was an understatement.

“The situation is grim,” I said, quoting one of our favorite lines from King Kong vs Godzilla, (1962) where the Japanese news anchor describes Godzilla destroying Tokyo and finds this to merely be “grim.”

“Can we make a pig instead?” asked my middle son. His joss paper flower was self-destructing. He grabbed another device for instructions and quickly whipped up a beginner-grade orgami pig. You know, the level we all should have been working at.

“This paper is awful,” I said. “Throw it all away as soon as we’re done.”

My oldest laughed. Basically, this was ideal to him: he finds it hilarious when plans go awry. It’s his favorite type of humor. “No way,” he said. “I’m keeping this forever.”

“Get rid of it,” I said, in my mother-voice. “I never want to see this useless paper again.”

“Are we done yet?” my husband asked, clearly indicating that he himself was definitely done.

Simultaneously, the younger boys said “Yes!” as my oldest said, “No.”

Eventually, we completed the individual flowers with varying degrees of success.

Overhead view of 5 hands, each holding an origami flower, some which are more defined than others.
Completed joss paper flowers (or crumpled up paper)

Then we moved on to a much simpler task, each of us making a single petal of a 5-petal flower. “With regular paper,” I insisted.

Ah, what sweet relief it was to use a plain old piece of 8.5x11!

Overhead view of a mint green five-petal flower, each petal with a hand pointing to a petal. An origami pig stands nearby.
The much-easier five-petal flower, and a pig

It appears that truly the only good use for joss paper is that for which it is intended: burning.

And we’ve learned that when shopping in a store where you don’t read the language, maybe don’t assume you know what something is.


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