When I first came here, I brought gifts from England for my hosts. They didn’t seem grateful. Today my surrogate mother visited me and signalled that a huge, beautiful, expensive-looking box of loveliness was for me! There’s just different ways of doing things here.
Whenever I asked Chinese people for advice on appropriate gifts, they struggled. Gifts are not a regular part of Chinese life. …And yet Chinese people are so happy – proving you don’t need presents! Isn’t that great? Chinese don’t immediately open up a gift and show gratitude because humility is valued. Historically, you couldn’t appear more important that others. In a world dominated by consumerism, with everyone fighting for the latest product that still doesn’t bring happiness, doesn’t this alternative deserve far more promotion? Worryingly, I am not sure these values will be continued by the young.
People do buy gifts in China; it is just not regular. On my two visits to China, I was overwhelmed with many gifts (some in picture). My friend usually brought something back to the UK from China, like Chinese sweets that are unlike anything in Britain, or cute little figures with big smiles!
Choosing an appropriate gift is difficult. Colours and numbers and many other things have lots of symbolism attached, and although many people say these are less relevant today, you can’t know how much your receiver reads into it. Big no-no gifts are clocks that are linked with death, and knives or scissors that symbolise the severing of a relationship. If in doubt about colour, always go for red. (…Can you guess why I chose this blog template?) Red is a symbol of happiness, prosperity, fame and fortune. Wedding dresses are red, and gifts of money are given in red envelopes. Avoid giving something in multiples of 7 or 4 – although 8 is good. Contrary to unlucky 13 in the West, this is a good number here! Instead of avoiding a floor 13, it is quite the opposite… I regularly visited a building where the 7th floor was replaced by 6B and the 14th was called 13B – so there were two floor 13s! Numbers are all about the luck they bring. Don’t forget that the next Olympics are in Beijing, due to start on 8/8/08 at 8pm. I remember when the news reported a number plate containing two 8’s that sold for $10,000. In Wuhan, we got very confused when our taxi would not take us over the river. He said he wouldn’t cross on certain days – and to find a willing cabbie you had to know the date and look out for a suitable number plate! There is no official religion here (although perhaps you can see the influence of Buddhism). I suppose all cultures have different ways of explaining the unknown.
Even once you’ve chosen your gift, it is still difficult to give it! Polite Chinese will never accept a present on first offering, so if you really want it to be theirs, you must insist. I don’t think Westerners are comfortable being pushy – particularly with presents. It can also appear rude to us that they refuse a gift …and then once we insist, they still seem ungrateful!
Chinese think it is polite that if you receive a gift, you should give another of equal value. I’m not sure that this makes sense to me. I give presents because I think the person deserves it, so for them to feel obliged to return the favour goes completely against the point. My hosts had been incredibly kind to me, providing me with food and company – and a free home!! I desperately wanted to give gifts as some way toward repaying them. I kept having to try creative ways of giving, so that they couldn’t refuse – and every time I gave a gift I always got one back! What do I do? On my last day, I met my hosts for the last time at a farewell dinner. I gave them a big golden box of fancy chocolates, wrapped in red. I went home pleased to have completed my plan successfully –they won’t have time now to find anything in return! That evening a knock came on our door…. I now own several pairs of brand new Chinese tights! I didn’t look grateful – but I was.