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The art of giving and receiving gifts in China

Even though Christmas has just passed, the major gift giving season approaches in China: Spring Festival (it is also a major time for illicit gifting). Giving and receiving gifts in China is something of an art, and the ritual can be as important as the gift itself. At work, my office is responsible for hosting visitors from other provinces and countries, so today I want to share with you some of the finer etiquette points I’ve picked up from watching this process dozens of times in the last year.

The Art of Receiving a Gift

If you’ve ever seen the fight for a bill at dinner, then you’ll understand why I’m starting with receiving first.

If you haven’t, it looks something like this: A group of friends are sitting around the table finishing a meal. One of them stands up and claims to be going to the bathroom or gives some other excuse and heads over to pay the bill. Suddenly the whole table jumps up and rushes over to the cashier, each person shoving money into the poor waitress’ hand. The friends take turns pushing each other’s money away from the waitress providing examples of why they should be the one who pays (yes, physically push). Finally, one person’s money is accepted, and the others thank them while insisting that they will pay next time.

What might seem at first as an argument is actually all part of the ritual. The person who has invited their friends to dinner is the one who will pay the bill, but if their friends don’t “try” to pay it could be seen as rude.

The same applies to receiving a more tangible gift. The person will hand the gift to the recipient, who is expected to at first refuse the gift. They will push it away saying something along the lines of “this really isn’t necessary,” or “it’s far too nice a gift to receive.” This isn’t done once, but several times. A person who easily accepts a gift could be seen as greedy or having an inflated sense of self-worth.

I’ve heard some people say that traditionally it should be refused three times, but from experience the number of times has to do with the relationship and the value of the gift.

Once you have accepted the gift, do not open it unless you are instructed too (often I am told to open the gift). Again, if you rush into opening the gift you will be seen as too eager. That being said, many Chinese people are aware that in the west people often open a gift in front of the giver.

Once you open the present, and say what a wonderful gift it is, there will be a second round of denial. The giver will say, “it’s just something simple,” but here you should insist that it is great.

I had this once go terribly wrong with a delegation from Germany. My hospital’s president said, “This is just a simple meal, we wish we could have provided something more delicious.” To which the German delegate said, “That’s ok, we have a tight schedule.” Luckily the translator stepped in and made up that the German had responded  appropriately.

The Art of Giving

For the most part when it comes to choosing a gift, the same rules apply as anywhere else in the world; what you give is a reflection of you and a symbol of your relationship to the recipient (co-worker, friend, boss…). However when it comes to giving gifts in China, there are a few additional tips that I have learned.

Firstly it is important to remember that gift giving is often reciprocal, if you give something the recipient is then expected to give something in return. A large gift might create a social burden that the recipient can’t repay, which would cause them to lose face. Give a gift that you could imagine receiving from the person to help maintain the social balance. (The essential cultural anthropology story of reciprocity pdf)

This is also important to keep in mind when receiving a gift. That phone call inviting you to that new fancy restaurant might have an ulterior motive (in my experience this is frequently followed by a request to teach someone’s kid English). If you don’ have any intention of returning the gift, it’s best not to accept it. If there is no existing connection, you are in the clear, but with friends, refusing a gift can be seen as an insult.

You can also earn face by giving a gift to someone closely connected to the person you are trying to build a relationship with. For example, I often give my co-workers’ children gifts which has the same social effect as giving it directly to them (kids can be easier to please and it puts less of a burden on the recipient). It is also helpful for avoiding much of the gift receiving routine.

I had a Chinese friend whose mother was a great seamstress. One of this mother’s friends wanted curtains made, but my friend’s mother refused to accept any pay for the work. Her friend was now in her debt. On my friend’s birthday though, she received a large gift from her mother’s friend who had never given her even a card before. Thus the debt was repaid, and her mother avoided the appearance of working for a friend (something of a social demotion).

If you have more helpful tips on gift giving and receiving in China, please share them below

Christmas in the Chinese countryside

Being thousands of miles away from home isn’t exactly how most people picture celebrating Christmas. In fact, it’s a holiday that can be pretty hard to enjoy without family.

So, like many expats, I did my best to recreate the Christmas experience with my students and co-workers. For the four weeks leading up to the holiday, we spent the last 10 minutes of every class practicing a few festive songs. I think for the most part the students enjoyed the challenge, and the rest liked having the time to make noise.

Finally, on Christmas day, we made a call from the classroom to my grandparent’s house where my whole family was and surprised them with a seasonal medley. It was a moment I’ll never forget; 30 students huddled around a microphone, trying their best to get through Jingle Bells, Deck the Halls, and Frosty the Snowman. I swear I could hear my grandmother smiling on the other end of the line.

In the countryside, it was easy to get away from the commercial season that Christmas has become in the West and in China’s urban areas. We focused instead on the festive spirit that comes with the joyous birth of Jesus Christ, although the students mostly focused on the first part (My post on Teaching Christmas to Communists).

Teaching in rural China was one of the happiest times in my life, but the students all realized that Christmas was hard for me. So on Christmas Eve, they surprised me with this video to cheer me up. It made the thousands of miles of separation from the life I formally knew completely worthwhile.

I hope you and your families have a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, or any other holiday you might celebrate. If you aren’t religious, I hope you will still take a moment to stop and appreciate the wonderful gift that family is.


Live from China its Christmas Eve

It’s Christmas Eve here in China, since we are 13 hours ahead of New York, and a full 17 hours ahead of Seattle.

My Chinese co-worker, Grace, is attending her daughter’s class Christmas party. Which includes a small gift exchange, performances and food ordered from KFC (at the parents’ expense of course). Grace and her daughter have prepared this cookie song (below), after which they will hand out knock off Oreos to all the other children. The rough idea of the song is about making cookies and then eating them. (“Little friends, isn’t it interesting to make cookies?!”)

One of my students/doctors, is going to be taking his family out for a nice dinner on Christmas eve (ironically in China they all eat western food on Christmas eve, and in the States the only thing that’s open is Chinese). After that he will take his son to the store to buy some presents and a Christmas tree. apparently I was not quick enough in my Christmas lesson to explain that he should have done that a month ago.

For the young Doctor, who isn’t married yet, he will be taking his fiance out to a fancy dinner and a movie. Their parents have no interest in Christmas.

Other doctors will simply do nothing, since their spouses will be on duty for Christmas.

My wife and I have a cozy day full of nothing to do, which will be nice. In the evening our British friend will come over for a small meal, and we’ll probably pray and play board games.

On Christmas we will call every part of our family and try not to think about how badly we wish we were with them. It’s especially tough this year with the niece and nephew having their first Christmas without us.

I hope all of you have an incredibly Merry Christmas with your families, and remember that you are truly blessed.

Your early Christmas present

The blog seems to be off to a great start, and I want to thank all of you for passing this on to people who might be interested. I will be posting over the break, and hope you will use a little of your precious free time to enjoy them.

Now for your entertainment, my former students trying to sing Jingle Bells.

Teaching Christmas to communists

One of the most common questions I get is about how much I could talk about religion when I was working in the classroom. In the US there is a lot of confusion about how much religious freedom there is in China (more than you think, but less than there could be), but that is a gigantic issue. So a glimpse of this is how I teach Christmas.

Usually I split up Christmas, into two lessons, one for Santa and one for baby Jesus. This is not just because I want the students to understand that these are separate parts of the same holiday, but I really enjoy Christmas and this lets me savor it a little longer. One year I taught a song a week for the whole of December and had the students surprise my parents over skype with a mini-concert.

For the Santa Claus lesson we talk about winter sports like sledding and snowball fights, which seemed completely alien to my students in Guangxi who have never even seen snow falling, let alone have enough to play with. Then we would practice pronunciation by reading “The Night Before Christmas,” and the students would then try to draw Santa using the description in the story. They find this very difficult, since they have seen drawings of 圣诞老人(Sheng-dan-lao-ren), Christmas old man, and this is not quite the same. Finally we sing Jingle Bells. They know the tune, but the rhythm of “in a one horse open sleigh” is difficult for them to master.

Side note: The other week my wife and I heard a different problem in the muzak version the mall was playing, “Dashing through the snow, in a one horse open slee.”

There is also a Chinese version it starts:


ding ding dang (ding ding dong), ding ding dang (ding ding dong), Ling er xiang ding dang (Bells ring out the sound ding dong).

The second lesson is probably my favorite moment of the school year, teaching the amazing story of Christ’s birth, with a stunted vocabulary. I try to emphasize all of the cultural impacts that this story has. For example the students are stumped by the question “What year was Jesus born?” They look at each other as if this is the most ridiculously difficult question I have ever asked. When I finally tell them the answer, you can practically see the little light bulbs glowing over their heads and a collective “Ooooh” can be heard.

The only part that the school cares about is that I present this as a belief that some people have and not as a fact. So I can’t say, “Jesus is the son of God,” but I can say, “Christians believe that Jesus is the son of God.” This seems to be a pretty small concession in exchange for teaching this story to 700 students. I have never had any problems with the schools for teaching this lesson.

The telling of the story requires a lot of body language, flapping my arms like angel’s wings, being a pregnant woman riding a donkey (tricky), and a variety of manger animals. The students tend to enjoy the story, and find the universal appeal of the child of God being brought into the loving arms of his parents in the poorest of settings. They are shocked by the cruel king’s decree, and are on edge until Jesus and his family have safely escaped to Egypt.

Santa Claus is coming to town?

Christmas in China is a really funny thing. Let’s call it 奇怪(qi-guai), a word that means “strange” but without any negative or positive connotations. You get a full month for quiet reflection, but miss all of the fun and merriment of the Christmas spirit. There are friends you spend special meals with, and there is still some shopping you have to do. After four years, I’m still not sure if I like it or dread it.

Christmas is still kind of new in China. During the missionary period up to the revolution Christmas was a quiet religious holiday. The hospital and local universities had many special Christmas performances to try and spread the Gospel. Then President Chiang Kai-shek’s wife, Madame Soong, attended many of these events at the Ginling Girls School, where Minnie Vautrin served in the 30’s and 40’s.

Today Christmas has returned, but more in shopping malls and fancy restaurants than in the hospital or schools (I’ve had to remind them a few times which day it is). It is interesting to see what a holiday looks like in its early stages before the traditions are really in place.

In the malls here Christmas decorations have been up for almost a month now, which seems to be a little late compared to shopping centers in the US, but it will be another full month before those decorations will come down. One gets the feeling that many of the people don’t really know when Christmas is, and that Santa is just a winter thing that goes with Frosty the Snowman. Christmas in some ways has started to mark the early part of preparing for Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), much like the day after Thanksgiving is the time to put up the Christmas tree, and New Years is the day to take it down in the US.

Also sometimes people will try to emulate the American traditions, for example the other day one of my students/co-workers gave me a very nice Christmas card. The outside was decorated beautifully and when I returned to my office I eagerly opened it to see what kind words she had written inside. I was baffled by what I saw inside, nothing. She had simply given me a blank card for Christmas. Somewhere along the line one of our traditions seems to have been misunderstood in a big way.
Another thing that makes Christmas feel a bit off here in China is that everyone will be working on the 25th. Only foreign teachers are granted the day off, for some reason Christmas hasn’t made the Communist Party’s official list of holidays yet (an omission surely worthy of a place on Santa’s naughty list).

Then this morning, as I waited for the bus, a woman was handing out papers to everyone with some very basic information about Christianity with a brief introduction to the Christmas story. Only a few people took time to read them, but it was encouraging to see.