I’ve seen quite a few blogs about the pitfalls of intercultural gift-giving. One Chinese-Canadian woman overwhelmed her new boyfriend’s parents with “over-the-top” gifts. Western blogger Ruby Ronin nearly drowned in food and red envelopes from the parents of various Asian boyfriends.
Meanwhile, I lived in a veritable gift vacuum. I received NO RED ENVELOPES from Andy’s Chinese-born parents.
I certainly didn’t arrive empty-handed. Every time we visited Andy’s family, I brought gifts. Nothing huge, but a few luxury hostess gifts. I had been trained by my debutante mother, after all, that one NEVER shows up without a gift.
And that was only one of many rules regarding gifts. Here are a few others:
SNOTTY WHITE ANGLO-SAXON GIFTING RULES
- Never give cash. Cash=crass.
- Never give gift cards. Too close to cash. Gift card=guache.
- Your gift must be thoughtful. It’s a sign – Andy would scoff here and say “You mean it’s a test!” – of how well you know the recipient. Big, expensive diamond studs for a woman who doesn’t have pierced ears? NOT THOUGHTFUL! (Andy would say, “But she can return them and see how much money you spent on her – doesn’t that count for something?” No, Andy. It does not. Negative points for you!)
- A gift is not complete without a card.
- A gift is not complete unless it is wrapped.
- The wrapping is not complete without a bow.
- The gift must arrive on time.
- Negative points for a gift shipped overnight. It’s a sign that the giver forgot about the recipient, which breaks rule #3.
- The price tags can NEVER be included with the gift. You may as well just give cash!
- A gift receipt with no price is thoughtful and thus acceptable. (Also proof that the giver is not re-gifting.)
And don’t just think there were rules for giving gifts. There were also rules for receiving them.
SNOTTY WHITE ANGLO-SAXON GIFT RECEIVING RULES
- Even if the gift is the stuffed and mounted head of your favorite (and possibly endangered) animal, you must smile and say thank you.
- Even if the gift is late, you must pretend that it arrived on time or the neighbor stole your mail and just gave it back.
- You must never let on that you returned/ burned/ or re-gifted your present. (Earthquakes make excellent excuses for destroyed gifts. Or so I’ve heard.)
- You must NEVER ask how much the gift cost or where the giver got the mounted head of a unicorn, because that might imply you want to return or exchange it.
- If the present is SO AWFUL you cannot stand to have it in the house, but you actually know someone who would love it, re-gifting is still ONLY acceptable if the new intended recipient does not know/ is not in the same social circle as the giver.
- Should an awful gift wind up in the Christmas present swap/ white elephant game, one must never admit the name of the giver. (Instead, it is acceptable to throw one’s husband under the bus and insist he picked it up at a garage sale.)
Clearly, I take gift-giving very seriously. Andy, back when we were first dating, got that. I loved elephants as a little girl; Andy and I once rode an elephant together and his first Christmas gift was a little emerald elephant necklace. Every gift was that thoughtful…at least for our first years together.
I guess I expected Andy’s parents to be the same way. Wrong. On my first trip to meet them, Sunny and Jay gave me a box of Hawaiian Host Chocolates (made in Gardena, California). Oh, and I got a lei at the airport. And that was it.
No present on our next visit (unless you count the two boxes of Hawaiian Host chocolates that Sunny gave to Andy and immediately I appropriated). No birthday present. No Christmas present. No wedding present, although I unwittingly manipulated Andy’s father into sending an obscenely large check for wedding costs to his son. (That check was all about face-saving. And possibly guilt.)
I eventually realized that gift-giving was simply not big in Andy’s family. He and his siblings never sent each other birthday gifts. While I thought that was weird, I didn’t interfere. However, I did send birthday presents to all my nieces and nephews. I insisted that Andy do the same. His sister first figured out Andy had a girlfriend when an adorable dress arrived the day her daughter turned 2. She called Andy immediately. “I know you didn’t pick that out. Who is she?”
Andy’s parents might not send me presents, but I didn’t feel right about not sending them presents. Especially once Andy and I were married. I mean, my father and Ex-stepmother had showered Andy with everything from Christmas ornaments to hip kitchen accouterments for years. (Possibly coated with the unspoken sentiment: “We’re so grateful you married our daughter and you’re not a penniless artist or a dick.”)
Sunny’s birthday was a few weeks after we got married.
I agonized: “What should we get your mother? Jewelry? A purse? A gift certificate to a spa?”
Andy did not agonize. “Nothing. She’s fine.”
“What?!” I screeched. “You can’t not get your mother a present!”
“She doesn’t want anything.”
“That’s what she SAYS. Secretly she’s been waiting for years for a present, and I bet every year she’s a little sadder when nothing shows up from her Number One Son!” I visualized Sunny’s delighted face when the mailman finally handed her a present on her birthday. She would rip it open and she would be so thrilled to finally get –
What? I had no idea. Damn, what a crappy daughter-in-law I was. I set out to find the perfect, most thoughtful gift I could. I poured over catalogs. Sweaters? Not a chance. The woman lived in Hawaii. Sunny didn’t do manicures or pedicures. She wore sun visors, but what a lame – and far too cheap! – gift that would be. She didn’t have any hobbies. She liked food and eating out, but that would mean a gift card and that was not okay (see Rule #2). She didn’t like sweets, I couldn’t send wine…
It would have to be jewelry.
And it would have to be gold. I’d learned that gold was the only acceptable metal for Chinese families. But Sunny didn’t wear much jewelry. Maybe, if it were a type of practical – yet pretty – gift…
“A WATCH!” I screamed. “Perfect!” I did a victory dance and badgered Andy ordering a delicate gold watch from one of the few department stores left in Hawaii.
On the evening of Sunny’s birthday, I hurried into the house, yelling, “Did you call your mom? Did she get it?”
I found Andy in the kitchen, beer in hand. He hedged. “Yep. She got it.”
“Was she surprised? I bet she was surprised! C’mon, tell me exactly what she said!”
Andy winced. “Exactly?”
Andy took a long sip of beer before replying. “She said, ‘Why you spend so much money?! I take it back.’”
“She took it back?! And TOLD YOU?!” Unheard of. I reeled, then rallied. “What did she exchange it for?”
“Nothing. She insisted that they put the money back on my credit card. Even the shipping.”
“But, but…” Confronted with so many broken rules, I was speechless.
To his credit, Andy did not say, “I told you so.”
I’m stubborn. I tried Christmas presents – a wallet for Jay, a purse for Sunny. Sunny took them back. I tried a watch for Jay’s birthday, complete with gadgetry (he’s a retired engineer, after all). Sunny took that back, too. (I like to think Jay protested, even though he probably didn’t.)
I couldn’t believe it. I had been outmaneuvered in gift-giving. I was going to be forced to NOT GIVE PRESENTS.
Mother’s Day approached. I racked my brain. I had to give Sunny a beautiful gift — one that she couldn’t return. Which meant it would need to be perishable. She liked fruits and vegetables, but there are tons of restrictions on sending produce to Hawaii. Nuts? No, she said they were too fattening.
And then I had it. It was a present as generic as all hell, but it was perfect. Hell, I even had a coupon to make my honey happy. I made arrangements and got a sickly sweet card for Andy to send as well. (Rule #4 always applies.)
From that day on, Andy always sent his mother flowers.
FYI, Speaking of China actually has a post on Chinese in-laws who try very hard to not accept gifts. You can check it out and see if you think it applied to Sunny. (I found it too late, of course.)