The Fear of Gifts: What, when, to whom, and how to give in China
'Tis the season for giving, or so the saying goes. But for many of us this time of year is just a seemingly endless minefield of possible gift-giving hazards and awkward moments. Gift exchange is tough enough on its own; throw in the possibility of cross-cultural miscommunication and there's potential for total disaster. We asked local Chengdu post-'80s writer and longtime CHENGDOO contributor Tan Juan to help us arm ourselves with the knowledge to avoid offending friends, family, workmates, students, bosses, teachers, and other people we might give a gift to or receive a gift from.
What role do gifts play in Chinese culture?
Generally, gifts stand for good wishes. They build up and strengthen the relationship between givers and receivers. But the role of gifts varies depending on the relations of givers and receivers. In some guanxi, presents become tools. Somehow it gradually becomes a burden as you have to handle and balance different relations, especially with colleagues. Then giving gifts can be kind of tricky, just like giving compliments.
What occasions are the most common for giving gifts in China?
Gifts for birthdays are the most common—I would try to pick out something my friends like, books, chocolate, accessories, decorative things, and so on. If it's a child, toys, books, or clothes are nice gifts. Souvenirs, such as key rings and refrigerator magnets, are considered a "must do" for those who travel abroad. Such small items would be given to extended family members, colleagues, and others who know you have traveled somewhere. Close friends and family members would receive something more personal. Wedding gifts are usually hongbao (red envelopes with money inside), unless it's the wedding of a close friend, in which case a carefully selected gift might be acceptable. To say "thank you" for something, a table of good food either at home or in a restaurant is appropriate.
Are there any taboos around gift giving?
Many of the taboos relate to wordplay, so clocks are definitely bad gifts because giving a clock is called song zhong in Chinese, which is a homophone with the phrase for attending upon a dying elder. The words for umbrella and fan in Chinese both sound like san, which also means departing. Books, likewise, because they are homophonous with losing, may not be good for traditional people—but books are nice gifts in general. Young people are less concerned with such language tricks. In general, chrysanthemum is not good as it is associated with the deceased. Instead lilies are a nice choice.
Finally, I would never think about giving secondhand items. It is not welcome. You discard, sell, exchange, or donate old things. Open-minded people might not mind, it but most people do.
Which holidays have typical gifts associated with them?
For Chinese holidays, mooncakes for Mid-Autumn Festival and zongzi, pidan (preserved eggs), and yandan (salted eggs) for Dragon Boat Festival. Western holidays are not widely celebrated with family in China, apart from stores with holidays promotions. But younger people (students and office workers in their 20s, 30s, or 40s) might gather together with friends on Christmas and exchange small gifts such as cards, gloves or scarves, or decorative items. Apples are also popular during Christmas and New Year, again, due to wordplay: Apple, or pingguo, shares a character with ping'an, meaning safe and sound. Thus, giving an apple during the holiday season conveys best wishes of safety and good luck. As far as I know, most traditional Chinese parents do not give gifts on Christmas, but young couples may take this opportunity to buy gifts for their children, which also serve to celebrate the new year. Finally, Valentine's Day is quite popular, and it's common for lovers to exchange typical items like chocolate or roses.
For occasions other than those holidays, what kind of gifts are appropriate to give?
There are no strict rules on gifts giving in different situations as long as it is not a taboo item as mentioned. Accessories, decorations, dolls, candies, clothes, accessories, CDs, stationery, etc. are all appropriate to give. Wine is more and more popular among young people as they can enjoy it right way in the gathering. Liquor, like baijiu, is usually reserved for leaders or businessmen.
For family members, more practical gifts, such as milk powder, fruits, honey, home appliances, shoes and clothes or other daily necessities, are appropriate. For instance, I usually give my parents money or just things they need. Last year, I bought a mobile phone for my father and shoes for my mother on their birthdays—things that they wanted but were unwilling to buy for themselves. Daughters and sons-in-law should also follow similar rules. On the other hand, once a child becomes an adult—in my case, after I entered university, parents usually stop giving them gifts.
What does a gift giver look for when selecting a gift?
Two factors matter. Knowing what is desired by the receiver is the best. Otherwise, an impressive and appropriate gift, either fits in the receivers' background/taste or easy to deal with, would be good, like something small but unique or simply looking nice. Looking nice I guess is the most important. If the giver is more considerate, he/she will think twice before they are about to choose something big.
How do you know how much to spend on a gift?
For close friends and family, as long as you can afford it! In general, price goes with the "value" of gifts. I would probably choose more expensive things for closer friends. But personally, I prefer giving handmade gifts to those family members and friends who will understand and cherish the effort. These days handmade gifts aren't so common, so they can be more precious and touching than store-bought gifts. For example, I am working on 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of Starry Night to give to my dear friend—this is somebody I know would appreciate the thought and effort I put into it and who would prefer it already put together than to put it together himself. In this case, the puzzle is just the medium to express this labor of love; I do also give puzzles to my friends to put together themselves. On the other hand, for colleagues and acquaintances, handmade might not be "good" enough, and simply buying something is easier and better for both givers and receivers in such situations.
How does the relationship between the receiver and the giver affect the gift choice?
I believe the price tag does not tell the whole story especially among close friends. If it is colleagues, boss-employee or clients, price counts, but giving expensive gifts don't necessarily buy one a good name. For colleagues, postcards or souvenirs are common gifts when you take leave and go on vacation. If you work in a big company, of course, you can't be expected to give gifts to everyone, so I would just give them colleagues in the same department or team.
When the relationship is between two people who are not equals, gift giving becomes more tricky. For instance, I never gave a gift to my boss except for when she gave birth. Likewise, it would be very inappropriate for a teacher to give gifts to students as teachers should not show any preferential treatment.
However, when I was a young student, we would give very small things to teachers on Teachers' Day or for the new year, such cards, pens, calendars, and so on. We even sent dumplings to our teacher when she broke her leg. Good old days! But nowadays, giving gifts to teachers has become a competition among parents and children to curry favor or even just a certain status in the classroom. Cards have always been popular gifts because their significance is intangible—but when I was young, they were simple and plain. Today, gift cards to department stores and other shops have replaced those intangible cards of the past.
How should gifts be presented?
Wrapping is a must whether carefully wrapped or simply placed in a paper bag. But cards are not seen all the time.
Occasionally, we've tried to give a gift and the intended recipient has initially refused it. Why?
I would say they were too shy to accept it immediately, or they did not think your relation was close enough to receive gifts. Trust me, people usually feel happy when they receive gifts. Chinese are no longer as shy as some Westerners think. Refusing words are no more than a gesture to show politeness. On the other hand, if you are not clearly presenting something as a gift, it might be construed as a non-serious offer and be refused.
What is thought about the act of "re-gifting"? Is it frowned upon or acceptable?
Usually the receiver does not know it is a re-gift, and it can be a good way to deal with "useless" gifts. But it was much more common a decade ago than now.
When you receive a gift, what should you do? What is the appropriate way to express appreciation?
Receiving it with two hands and saying thank you with a smile is the best way to receive a gift. Usually I will say thank you a few times to show my appreciation as well as politeness—too many times will make it awkward and unnatural, and a thank you note is too romantic for most Chinese. People will find opportunities to give gifts in return at the appropriate time and occasion.
Is it rude to open gifts immediately?
Generally, Chinese are not used to opening gifts in front of the giver because they want to avoid the possible embarrassment that might arise if he or she does not like it. On the other hand, if the giver urges you to open it right away, you should. Also, people's attitudes are changing. I usually open gifts in front of my friends and express my appreciation immediately. But I prefer to ask before I do it. Sometimes my friend wants to make it secretive so I will open it later. Of course you should always express your appreciation whether you like it or not—after all, 礼轻情意重 (lǐ qīng qíng yì zhòng; it's the thought that counts).
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 61 ("and the winner is...").