2024-01-09 yjl0518 11225

Choosing and giving someone a gift can be hard. It could be a thank you gift, something for someone at their wedding, a parting present for someone on their last day at work or a birthday gift. To some of Chinese background, some gifts might be better than others.


Next month is my birthday. About a month ago, my Chinese-Malaysian parents asked me what I want for my birthday this year. That annoyed me – I don’t celebrate my birthday and don’t like attention. But I suppose they want to, and they know I’m a fussy person.


There is much superstition surrounding gift giving in Chinese culture. There are gifts which some believe bring the receiver good luck, and others not as much luck.


In Chinese culture, gifts that are associated with events we don’t want to happen tend to be avoided. Generally, taboo gifts in Chinese culture are tied to “touch wood” circumstances and language we’d rather distance ourselves from. For example, green hats are one such gifts: “wearing a green hat” translates to unfaithful wife. Giving shoes and umbrellas are avoided as in Mandarin they refer to breaking up of a relationship or partnership.


When I was seven, I saw a green-coloured frog clock at a stall at the shopping centre in Malaysia and loved it. My family and I walked past this stall every Saturday, and each time I begged my parents for it, and begged even more when my eighth birthday approached. On my eighth birthday, I eagerly unwrapped my present from my parents to a…pile of Enid Blyton books. In hindsight, fair enough: “giving a clock” sounds like sòng zhōng, which translates to “funeral ritual”

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For the typical Chinese person, gifts offering one positive sensory experiences are good gifts. Things that are good for the mind, body and soul make good gifts. Peaches, nuts and tea are known to have health benefits and considered prosperous presents. It’s probably why my mum comes round to cook vermicelli or claypot noodles on my birthday – not only are they healthy but they symbolise longetivity too.

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It’s no surprise then good gifts in Chinese culture are tied with traditional customs and old-school trains of thought. Gifts that come in pairs or even sets – except in sets of 4 as the number four sounds like death in Mandarin – are popular, auspicious. Even better if the gifts are new as some Chinese reckon bad luck from the previous owner may be attached to second-hand items.

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Practical gifts are favoured as well. Money sealed in red packets is a common gift at weddings and on birthdays. Same goes for porcelain cutlery and crockery with intricate patterns, especially the floral kind. Now that I am older, my parents present me with a red packet when my birthday comes round – and tell me to put all the money in it in the bank.


On occasions, the more extravagant and expensive the gift, the more the gift giver might impress. But an overly lavish gift given to colleagues in China can be considered bribery, apart from letting one flaunt their wealth and giving them “face” in the world of business.


My Chinese-Malaysian parents always taught me to use both hands to give and receive gifts; it’s a mark of respect. Some of us hesitate opening presents upon being handed them. No surprise since Asians can be reserved about expressing emotion, and traditionally in China people like to open gifts in private though this is changing.


There’s more to meets the eye when one hands over a gift. As French tragedian Pierre Corneille said on giving:


“The manner of giving is worth more than the gift.”


When we give someone a gift, we usually want them to like it or at the very least find some use for it. For the thoughtful among us, we want a gift to be meaningful and if it’s a truly meaningful gift, chances are it will be synonymous with the other person’s culture, beliefs and values. And for those of us receiving the gift, we’ll know it. On being thoughtful, author Wes Adamson said:


“The simple gift of giving becomes an elaborate rich aftertaste of a natural blissful feeling, lingering endlessly in my lifetime.”


A gift is more than a material obxt. Behind each gift given is a person thinking of you, coupled with memories spent with each other. When it comes to gift giving, whether we’re giving or receiving a gift, it’s the thought that counts and that’s what we remember.


Do you find it hard to pick a gift for someone?


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Behind the Story
My husband used to say he didn’t like to celebrate his birthday. He liked to use the day to be thankful to his mother for giving birth to him. Is that from some kind of ancient Chinese tale encouraging filial behavior?
He stopped me from buying a clock for a gift once. I did buy a clock for my sister, though. Even though she’s not Chinese, it probably wasn’t a kind thing to do since she has trouble with punctuality. (Maybe it was a gift for myself in hopes that I wouldn’t have to wait for her so often. Ha ha.)
I can’t decide whether I like the Chinese way of opening a gift later in private or the American way of opening it right away. Opening a gift immediately, especially when there are a lot of expensive gifts, can seem materialistic. And yet, it’s also generous to share the pleasure with everyone present. Have you ever been to a baby shower? It seems the main purpose of the party is for everyone to have a chance to ooh and aah about all the darling baby clothes and bibs and blankets.


Mabel Kwong
I actually haven’t heard of celebrating one’s birthday to be thankful to one’s parents. I hope your sister liked the clock you gave her and didn’t take it as an insult – after all, you are siblings. Then again, there is something called sibling rivalry…
Never been to a baby shower, and in general am not a fan of parties or get togethers with more than a few people. As you inferred, (a lot of) gifts are rooted in materialism. I often wonder: if someone throws a big party and receives a lot of gifts, what do they do with them all


Behind the Story
The good thing about showers is that the recipient usually needs the gifts, i.e. clothes and diapers, etc. for a new baby. Wedding showers used to be popular back in the day when it was more common to get married at a young age and the couple was setting up a new household after having lived with their parents or in a dormitory.
Also birthday parties for kids … You ask what they do with all the gifts. I think of my seven-year-old grandson who received lots of lego sets last year and spent the next few days putting them together. Ha ha. He seems never to have too much lego.


Mabel Kwong
Birthday parties for kids are always fun. I think kids tend to find joy in practically every single gift they get. The thought of a gift usually is enough to get them all excited. Lego is a great gift. I love lego.


I have some Chinese friends back home and remember that when one of them got engaged, her family gave her at least two sets of everything. The jewelry they gifted her with was lavish and had to be matching sets. I guess that counted as dowry.
I used to have difficulty picking out gifts for family, friends, and colleague. Sometimes, it was because there were too many nice things to choose from; sometimes, it was because I did not know a person well enough to guess what that person might like; and last (and perhaps the one that makes choosing most difficult), it was hard to pick out a gift for someone who has everything already. In such case, what does one give to someone with all that money can buy?


Mabel Kwong
I like how you break it down on choosing gifts for others. Out of the three, I agree with you that the last one is probably the most challenging when it comes to giving gifts. I suppose in those instances, giving money would be a good idea. Or perhaps you can try outright asking if there’s anything they want or take them out for a meal


choosing the right gift for someone can be challenging. one rule for me is get the person what she or he wants rather than what i want for him/her. for some family members, i find it practical to give money so they can buy what they really want.


Mabel Kwong
I like your rule. When it comes to gift giving, it never is about you…but for those around us. Money is always a convenient choice, and more and more people I meet days do not mind receiving money as gifts.


It reminded me a Japanese family we knew. I was overwhelmed by their traditional etiquette. I guess each country has its own. China is such a big country, each region probably has its own etiquette, I am guessing.


Mabel Kwong
In many Asian countries, it is customary to bring a small gift when visiting someone’s house, or when catching up with someone you took the trouble to come see you (from afar). The Japanese family you know sound very hospitable


lisa thomson
Hi Mabel, awesome post! It’s interesting to hear your culture’s superstitions surrounding gift giving. Some of us Canadians also don’t like used items for the same reason. I don’t have a problem with thrift shopping and vintage clothing. As for gift giving, whether I find it hard to find something depends on the person i’m buying for. Some people you can find just the right thing at the time you’re not even looking Other people you can search forever and still doubt you’ve picked the right thing. It says a lot about our relationship with that person, perhaps?


Mabel Kwong
Thanks, Lisa. Like you, I don’t have a problem thrift shopping for myself. But when it comes to buying gifts for someone else, probably not.
I think you are right. I think when we have a good and meaningful emotional (and physical) relationship with someone, we just know what to get them


Interesting as usual, Mabel. My daughter’s best friend is from Taiwan, so I knew something of this before, but you have given me many more thoughts…I always try to think of the one who is getting the gift. That this person will like the present and understand my thinking with it. That I want it to be the right thing…I remember when I was a child, I sometimes bought things for my mother and grandmother that I myself would have liked to get…but mostly I made things to give away. Still, today, I think those presents are the most precious ones for me…the ones that are hand made, made with love and effort, taking time from the person who made it.
In Sweden we do not have anything in gifts connected to “good or bad things might happen”. The only thing I can think of is that old people avoid giving white flowers, because that is connected to funerals.


Mabel Kwong
You are very well traveled and acquainted yourself with quite a few cultures. Such a good thing. “this person will like the present and understand my thinking with it” This is the way I think when I give someone a gift.


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