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 week 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” or 戴绿帽子(dài lǜ mào zi) 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 送终 (sòng zhōng), which translates to “funeral ritual”.
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, seeds 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.
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.
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. One can choose to spend the money on what they like, and we could all do with a spare set of plates for guests coming over to eat. 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.
There is also the act of giving the gifts themselves, and opening them. 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.
On my birthday over the last few years, I’d wake up to an empty house. Wander sleepy-eyed to the kitchen for some breakfast…and see a bright red packet propped up atop the piano. Make a beeline for it. How did it get there? Don’t know. But someone remembered my birthday… 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.”
My parents eventually bought me that green frog clock, demanding a brand new one from the shopkeeper before parting with their money. Today the clock dustily sits on my shelf amongst the equally dusty books, notebooks and stuffed monkeys, having survived multiple house moves. If I could save one thing from this shelf, it would be the frog clock.
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.”
Last year for my birthday, one of my white friends whom I met not long ago gave me a second-hand stuffed monkey (bought from a thrift shop) which I named Mr Wobbles. I don’t think my mum likes Mr Wobbles very much: a toy isn’t exactly a practical gift for a grown-up and who knows what kind of luck the used monkey brings with it. More than once, I caught my mum vacuuming the house and she pushed the vacuum’s head towards Mr Wobbles, pushing the monkey all around the carpet like trash.
But I like Mr Wobbles. Just as much as the frog clock. And the red packets. When my white friend gave him to me, she said, “I just found out you like monkeys. So here.”
A gift is more than a material object. 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?