Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Intricacies of Chinese Gift-Giving

Since the birth of William, we've received an endless stream of (mostly monetary) gifts from Chinese family, friends, clients, and co-workers. I have also been giving baby clothes and toys from my closest friends and family, most of them westerners. While the Chinese way may seem more practical, it comes with it's fair share of headaches. It's not as simple as cashing a check and writing a thank you note, as I would normally do in the US. The longer I've lived in China, the more I've learned about the intricacies and balancing act of giving gifts. Some aspects one must consider:

My m-i-l with her bf on her 60th birthday.
The occasion. Chinese give gifts for many occasions, although I didn't realize this at first because many gifts are giving in the form of cash or, in recent years, a gift card. Ming would just hand out cash as needed, with me paying little attention when he explained why. Naturally, we give gifts to couples getting married as well as to children for Chinese New Year, but there are many other times when a cash gift may be expected, such as for an illness (hospital stay) or death (funeral). Surprisingly, I find that birthdays usually don't require too much extravagance, with the exception of certain milestones. Last year, Ming's mom turned 60 and we invited all her relatives out for dinner and everyone gave her cash gifts; this year, at 61, her birthday went mostly unnoticed.

The location. China is a big country with different customs throughout. Not only that, since there are such large differences in development and socioeconomics, trends in gift-giving vary. What is appropriate in Shanghai is completely different from what would be given in rural Guangdong. In Chengde, which is a smallish (population: 400,000) city in Hebei, the standard for giving cash is generally 200 RMB (US$30) for acquaintances and co-workers, 500 RMB (UD$80) for family and close friends. I've heard that in larger cities, 500 RMB is often the minimum and I'm sure in the countryside people may give 100 RMB or perhaps less.

The relation. I probably should have listed this first, as it is arguable the most important point. When and how much a giver gives depends on the relationship with the receiver. As mentioned before, 200 or 500 RMB is the current standard gift amount where I live. But that's really just the tip of the iceberg. If you are invited to your boss's daughter's wedding, for example, you'd probably want to give more, much more, if possible. If you are invited to a friend's wedding who's father has significant pull in the city government, consider giving generously. Also, parents will give extremely large amounts to their children for weddings and the birth of a child (most likely bonus cash if said child is a son). The parents of the groom lay out fat stacks—I think Ming's mom gave of a significant chunk of her own savings, something like 30,000 RMB (US$5,000), when we got married several years ago. At Ming's (male) cousin's engagement party last year, his aunt and uncle handed over 10,000 RMB to the bride-to-be's parents like it was nothing (for them, it wasn't nothing).

Ming's uncle with his cousin and his bride-to-be.

Superstition. When giving cash, you must be careful about the amount; 250 RMB is inappropriate because it means “stupid,” though I'm still trying to figure out why. Chinese people believe six and eight to be particularly lucky, so a gift of 600 or 800 RMB (US$100 or $130) is particularly welcome. Furthermore, cash is generally given in a red envelop (红包, hóngbāo), red being the most auspicious color in China. Giving gifts in amount of four is often taboo because the word for four in Chinese is a homophone for the word death. When giving other gifts, you must also be careful of selection. Clocks are unlucky because to give a clock (送钟, sòng zhōng) sounds like the words for “bury a parent” (送终, sòngzhōng). Books are a poor choice, especially given to those engaged in business, as the Chinese word for book (, shū) is a homophone for the word “loss” (, shū). The list goes on, but you get the point.

Clearly, giving gifts here is a rather complicated matter and the end result is often a carefully calculated stack of lifeless 100 renminbi notes. It's unfortunate, because I relish gift-giving. I find cash impersonal and prefer to hunt down that perfect gift. To me, there are few things in life more satisfying than watching a person open a present and see the look of delight on her face. But in China, even this act is deemed unacceptable, as it's considered impolite to open gifts in front of the giver. Ah, well. I'm sure I have plenty of birthdays and Christmases in the US in my future during which I can satisfy my inner Santa Claus.
Mom's 60th birthday dinner.

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