The majority of Chinese people expend their major gift-giving efforts during the annual Spring Festival. With the exception of those who have come to China to scale mountains in search of elusive sages, most of us would be drawn into some kind of Chinese New Year visitation, either wittingly or unwittingly. Like most cultures, showing up empty-handed is a no-no. Yet a single misstep in the gifting process not only undoes all painstaking efforts at relationship-building, but could augur bad luck in the Lunar year ahead. Gifting at Chinese New Year is definitely something that you would want to “get right the first time.”
Photo: George Ruiz
Gifting in Asian culture is rife with taboos and China is no exception. Especially at the Lunar new year, where good luck is the name of the game. If you have been in China long enough, or have done your requisite homework, the “do not give” column on your gifting list should be populated with quite a number of items. The common theme that runs through these items is bad luck, which you don’t want at Chinese New Year, or any other time of the year, for that matter.
·Items that symbolise death: a definite no-no at this time of the year. These include giving clocks, which sounds the same as a final send-off in Chinese; cut flowers, especially chrysanthemums – exotic back home, the vivid fragrant blooms are highly associated with funerals; handkerchiefs, which symbolize crying; black and white-coloured items and any item given in fours, a number with the sound of death.
·Items associated with parting: sharp objects symbolizing the cutting of ties and pears, which share the same sound as “leaving”.
·Items that have embarrassing connotation: green hats, which symbolize having an unfaithful partner.
Since showing up empty-handed is unacceptable, it may be tempting to fob off the invitation with some excuse. Before booking that conveniently-scheduled holiday, consider the following list of items that would please the fussiest of hosts (or hostesses, usually). After all, you do want to show appreciation for lengths gone to in showing hospitality at this time of the year.
1) Red envelopes or Hongbaos
In a culture that prizes money in its original form, this is a gift that can never go wrong, especially if the recipient is a child or youth who has not any earning capacity yet. This may seem a tad offensive to Western sensibilities but look at it on the bright side – head-scratching over what to give is non-existent in China.
Hongbaos are commonly given by elders as protection from an evil spirit that targets children at this time of the year. Over the generations, however, the inside of the red packet became more important. How much to give is a tricky questions, considering there are no general guidelines that exist across China, except for the minimum of 50 RMB to 100 RMB in rural areas. In southern provinces, always give amounts in even numbers and numbers containing six or eight are especially auspicious and the number four is to be avoided. To be on the safe side, ask a trusted local friend. If all this sounds overwhelming, take comfort in the fact that the Chinese face the same confusion when giving those red packets too.
In some cases, the younger generation may choose to give hongbaos to elders as a sign of respect, commonly accompanied with another non-monetary gift. This practice is more common in rural areas, giving rise to the phenomenon of children avoiding the annual sojourn back to their village. Giving hongbaos to parents and parents-in-law would thus be a good idea (from the Chinese point-of-view). Again, check with savvy local friends on prevailing market rates.
2) Alcohol and Tobacco
De Rigueur as corporate gifts, alcohol and tobacco are safe bets as personal gifts if you are close enough to the host to know their poisons. Or, got the “exotic” route with some foreign wine or cigarettes if you have just returned to China from overseas.
3) Tea Leaves
If your host is a teetotaler, or if you don’t know him or her well enough, tea is a good bet, being the national beverage, especially among the older generation. Just don’t be stingy and pick any generic jumbo pack off the supermarket shelf. Get the branded single-origin leaf from a reputable dealer, replete with the elaborate packaging. If you aren’t sure, bring a savvy local to ensure you don’t get ripped off. All this is worth the effort to avoid the reputation as the foreigner who doesn’t know anything about Chinese tea, or even worse, cheapo.
4) Fruit baskets
Another crowd pleaser, fruit is a gift that looks substantial and is pleasing to the eye. Just be sure to avoid the pear. And gift in even numbers other than four. Mandarin oranges are safe bets because they sound like gold in Cantonese, as does their colour. To further impress, arrange them in a nice fruit basket. If you are buying ready-made baskets, do be aware that some unscrupulous sellers do hide less-than-fresh produce within. Picking your own contents may help alleviate this.
The Chinese New Year is all about sweetness and light, so candy is another good bet for families with children. Either local specialties or exotic imports will do fine. Savoury nibbles like nuts or beans are also a good idea as they can be enjoyed by the whole family.
6) Imported or Foreign Goods
This option is particularly appealing to younger generations who are often keen to try foreign products. They may find your chocolates a tad sweet but they would appreciate the gesture as a window to the outside world. Apart from snacks, culinary hosts into Western-style cooking would appreciate “exotic” cooking ingredients like olive oil or cheeses. A good-quality imported wine is also a good option.
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Keywords: Gifting in Asian culture gifting at Chinese new year Chinese new year gifting
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