Gifting East (#86)


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:


  1. Never give cash. Cash=crass.
  2. Never give gift cards. Too close to cash. Gift card=guache.
  3. 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!)
  4. A gift is not complete without a card.
  5. A gift is not complete unless it is wrapped.
  6. The wrapping is not complete without a bow.
  7. The gift must arrive on time.
  8. Negative points for a gift shipped overnight. It’s a sign that the giver forgot about the recipient, which breaks rule #3.
  9. The price tags can NEVER be included with the gift. You may as well just give cash!
  10. 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.


  1. Even if the gift is the stuffed and mounted head of your favorite (and possibly endangered) animal, you must smile and say thank you.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.”

“And? And?!”


“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.)

When Andy called Sunny on Mother’s Day, she thanked him for her gift. She even said her gift was pretty, and she liked the card. There was no talk of returns or exchanges:IMG_4751

From that day on, Andy always sent his mother flowers.

(I win.)

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.)

Published by

Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

26 thoughts on “Gifting East (#86)”

  1. My bf’s mum and my mum are currently engaged in a crazy gift war. Every time I go to Spain, C.’s mom buys gifts for my mum, often in the form of silk (the silk for Suzhou is very famous). My mum is kind of overwhelmed but she likes the gifts and often wears them. Then of course she has to get something for C.’s mum. Until now I have brought her a leather bag, a leather wallet, a sweater, a perfume, face lotions… She accepts them, but she always says there was no need to bring anything, and then I think she puts everything in a closet or something because she doesn’t want to spoil the presents by using them!!!!! (I never saw her using the wallet, the sweater or the perfume. The bag she used once, because she says it is too good. Last present was face lotions and she assured me she will use them).

    1. That is pretty funny. Yes, I think your mom is going to have to stick with the perishable route if she wants C’s mom to use the gifts.

      My sister brought me back a gorgeous painted fan from a town in Spain where they make lovely fans. It’s so pretty I put it up on the wall. But it’s been so hot here recently that I’m thinking of taking it down and using it!

  2. Unlike your crazy family, my family is not much on gift giving. I haven’t exchanged any sort of gift with my siblings since I was a teenager. We are all good with it because we are Germans and frugal although at this point it’s not about the money. I like to buy my own presents. Even my husband needs detailed instructions to get me the right thing. That sets me up to be a great re-gifter and every Christmas I post the rules of proper re-gifting. I have re-gifted some very strange things. One of my best was when my company had a Chinese auction for a charity. I put together a basket of Mexican dishes in gawdy colors with cats on them (yep, that was a gift). I had a butter dish, salt and pepper shaker and some service dishes. I didn’t expect anyone to want it but there was a bidding war. (Cat people are just crazy!) My goofy basket brought in the biggest $$ of the evening. No one laughs at my re-gifting anymore. I am a professional! Having said all that, I really surprised. I would have expected that gift-giving in a Chinese family was expected.

  3. Hahahahaha, can I join your cat basket re-gifting? Since I have cats, people have already deemed me a cat lady. I have received cat blankets, cat decorations, stuffed cats, Egyptian cat statues, cat vases, cat artwork…

    I think there’s both cultural/ immigrant frugality involved in Andy’s family. They are really into skimping on small/ medium-sized luxuries and buying real estate instead. Which is not a bad financial plan.

  4. My brother was married to a Japanese woman (divorced now). Her parents always brought gifts when they visited from Japan and my mom reciprocated. I’m one of four, 3 of us exchange gifts but one brother shut gift giving down years ago. I’m doing the gift giving thing all wrong. I usually give my niece a gift card. She’s always very specific about what she wants and if I can’t get it for some reason I basically give her the money (in the form of a gift card) to buy it. The best gift any of us can give mom? Flowers! She loves them. Win!

    1. Yeah, Big Brother shut down the sibling gift-giving also. (What is it about brothers?!) His timing was very clever, though. It was after other siblings started having kids, so for a few years he got gifts for himself AND his kids,

      Andy read this post last night and informed me that I needed a Part II. I was like, “What are you talking about?” Apparently the flowers were not all I thought and not appreciated in the way your mother appreciates them. Someone has been keeping secrets and I guess my statement of victory was premature. Sigh.

      I’m trying to get him to write a guest post. Should be ready by next year.

  5. I gave up to find a suitable gift for Mr.Panda’s parents. They don’t have any hobbies, don’t want anything… and I had some frustrating encounters in the past. Once I got Chinese mom a small glass lantern because she loves candles. It was cute and cheap, but she asked me why I wasted money on that. I took it home with me and am using it myself now -.-
    She get’s a 3 bucks flower on Mother’s day she can put in the garden, but that’s all. I really don’t want to waste my time to think about it. We just got her an IPad last week, and she seems quite happy with it because she can now skype with her friends in Hong Kong. But that shall make up for all the presents in the past and the future.

    My mom also sends her gifts every year for Christmas. I told my mom to choose something she can use. She found something nice, but Chinese mom never uses it because it is too good. My mom once got her a really cute leather backpack. Chinese mom wears it once a year, for the Christmas party from her work place. And then she sends my mom an enornously big present back. And because it is so big, my mom gets her a second one. Then of course Chinese mom gets her another one. And I am always the one to carry it all through the country.

    The same game is repeated every time my parents visit me, and doubled every time my dad helps to her to repair anything around the apartment. And of course all of them ask me all the time what they should get the other one. And when I ask the other what they want so they get something useful, both start to complain that it shouldn’t be anything expensive because they don’t want to make too much work for the other person. -.- -.- -.- (3 super pissed smileys)

    1. Wow, Betty, you and Mr. Panda are, like, Panda Packhorses! It’s funny, but yeah, frustrating. Sunny is always sending stuff to her sister here in California, and so I know how you feel. It’s so much fun to check luggage because Auntie needs a particular neck massager, and special tea, etc.

      Yeah, after Andy told me I was all wrong about the flowers last night, I am considering throwing something. Like maybe throwing in the towel.

  6. Congrats on your win!

    Gift-giving for frugal Chinese (especially if they are from the old country) challenging but you persevered.

    You know what’s worse than giving gifts to frugal Chinese? Giving gifts to old-school Hawaii Japanese.

    The local Japanese call it “omiyage”.

    Nowadays omiyage isn’t so bad. You just find something appropriate for the situation and the person. If the gift is something you can’t obtain locally, even better. It’s the thought that counts.

    Things were a lot different a couple of generations ago, however. When I was a kid, I remember my mother kept and accounting log of the gifts that other people gave them–names, dates, and most importantly, the estimated amount.

    The idea was that when it was her turn to reciprocate, my mother would know exactly what was given and how much it (probably) cost, giving her an idea as to the amount she should spend on their gift: it should at least match, or slightly exceed, the amount of the original gift. If not, there could be a loss of face.

    People eventually gave up this practice, probably because it was just too stressful.

    1. Omiyage sounds a lot like some of the blogs I’ve read about weddings in China. There’s a ledger kept with the amount given to the couple by every member of the family/ village. That way, they know exactly how much to reciprocate to an individual/ family. It makes it more like a loan than a gift!

      1. Oh definitely a “loan”.

        But that practice died out with my Boomer parents. They were thoroughly Americanized and didn’t see the point behind all that extra work.

        And gift giving should be fun anyway.

  7. I don’t think Andy’s parents are being frugal about giving gifts. It’s not a custom with Chinese families. However, the gifts may come in the form of a thick wad of cash for a specific purpose or a key to an apartment for some lucky individuals.

  8. Generally speaking, it’s not common for Chinese families to give gifts except for moon cakes and some food items. However, some are generous with their gifts in the form of a thick wad of cash for a specific purpose or a key to an apartment.

  9. Your list of gift-giving and -receiving rules is excellent and comprehensive. We wear ourselves out following those rules. I’m tired just thinking about it. Christmas is just around the corner. And doesn’t everyone already have everything they want and need? Ugh!

  10. If it makes you feel better, my Thai mom would LOVE you. Unfortunately (hahahaha), her white daughter-in-law doesn’t remember to send anything, not even a phone call to say Happy Mother’s Day or Merry Christmas. Yeaaahhh. So feel good about trying!


      I have noticed that in American couples, it is the woman who controls the gift-giving and social calendar. So a lot of times the guy loses touch with his friends, the couple only visits the wife’s family, etc.

      But in our house, Andy’s family would get nothing if I didn’t nag him and put it on our calendar.

  11. Oooo, you changed your theme’s design! Nice!

    Also, some time ago, I read one of your articles and it actually kinda saved my life in a class. xD The one about transportation in US. (It saved me the shame of not saying much during that class, haha.) Maybe this one will help me sometime too. xD

    1. Thank you! A little autumn for autumn. Maybe I will go all crazy with winter stuff next. It’s the only place I will find seasons here in SoCal!

      I am glad to have provided useful information in a timely manner. 🙂

  12. Thanks for the shout out! Woohoo!

    Poor Autumn! You should have gotten a red envelope at least!!! Richard’s parents gave me that on our first meeting, and I was alarmed to find 2 Benjamin Franklins in there (I was expecting 10 bucks, maybe, ha). But after that I haven’t received a thing. Whenever we visit them, though, they send us home with a 500 lb bag of dates and nuts.

    It’s hard to buy presents for older Asian relatives/in-laws, they always say they want nothing. But in China (especially around Chinese New Year) they usually give the following:

    1. Loads of cash (this breaks the anglo saxon gift giving rule so it’s out)
    2. High end fruits
    3. Flowers
    4. Vitamins/Chinese Medicine

    When I was growing up and my mom gave me a Christmas present, I’d open it and say thanks to which she would immediately say– “oh you like? I get on sale, 15 dollar!” to which I would yell, “mom! you’re not supposed to tell me how much it is uaggghhh!!!” In exchange, I would give her a present and later find out she returned it to the shop the week after, heartbroken. It wasn’t until I moved to China I had the ‘a-ha’ moment and realized that’s just normal in Vietnam/China.

  13. Your post on the tomatoes cracked me up. I bet loads of other people enjoy it.

    Yeah, the fruits are impossible for Hawaii, or I would totally do the Harry & David thing. Sigh.

    Andy and I just had our anniversary. Per our unspoken agreement, he does not tell me how much the new iPhone cost. Meanwhile, I’m all: “I got your gift on sale! Plus 40% off because I had a coupon! And free shipping!”

    He is dutifully impressed and praises my money-saving skill and enjoys his gift all the more.

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