#61 Wrapping your head around China’s hongbao and gift giving culture
It’s no secret: gifts make China go ’round. As ‘laowai’, we can choose to play by the cultural norms of the land, or choose to dig our heels in and, well, not! There’s loads of grace to go around for the unknowing foreigner, but why choose to be that laowai if we don’t have to be. I truly believe that the basics of gift-giving (understanding and avoiding what is sure to offend at all costs) is actually attainable and is a worthy endeavor during our time in China. In this episode, we check out a couple of my own favorite cultural gift-giving failures and successes to get to the bottom of the basics that you need to know.
It’s worth diving into gift-giving and adding a bit of this into your own DNA to enrich your experiences with the Chinese. With a bit of effort, it will begin to come naturally and you’ll actually begin to enjoy it.
Bringing out the big guns
Today we’re going to tackle two big topics that are inextricably linked to Chinese New Year – hóngbāo and gift giving! A working knowledge of hóngbāo and gift giving will do you good in any relationship with Chinese, not just at CNY but all year round. If you’re like me, you might spend a lot of time trying to figure out what’s the right gift to give when going to a friend or co-worker’s home or how much money to put in that little red envelope. And if you don’t, either you need to re-record this podcast for me because your own knowledge and wisdom is probably more in-depth than mine, or you need to listen closely if you don’t actually mull this question over in your head because you may not be playing the game at all… and you need to be.
It’s time to stop playing the ‘laowai’ card
Showing up empty handed, even when a local friend insists is OK, really isn’t. Learning gift-giving basics will help you ‘wow’ your circle of locals and make them feel at ease around you. Demonstrating some knowledge in this arena may get you one step closer to being invited into their inner circle. Why should we care? Aren’t we foreign and get to play the ‘laowai’ card at most of these things anyway. Well, yes and no. In my eyes, we have the best of both worlds. Because we’re not local Chinese, and aren’t expected to be, we don’t have to get bogged down in the intricacies of each bit of the complicated guanxi process including our topics today of gift giving and hóngbāo. Most people are gracious and can laugh off a cultural faux pas committed by an unknowing laowai.
Take the opportunity to be awesome
But, man do we have a fantastic opportunity to dig into the culture of our host country by taking some time to do some basic study around gift giving. We are here and we should care enough to learn a bit of what’s important to our local counterparts and play ball so to speak when we have the opportunity to do so. In the end, it goes a long way in securing friendships, trust, and business in this nation and when working with Chinese all around the world. It’s more important than we tend to think.
Maybe this will help
Here’s a brief analogy I like to remind myself of when I’m feeling too lazy to find the right gift or am left wondering why I need to play a game that seems unimportant or petty to me amidst the craziness of life. Here goes: You invite a new acquaintance couple to the house for dinner and they take the time to scour through the pics of your social media accounts looking for things you like and then talk to a few of your coworkers to confirm. They arrive with your favorite cake, the entire thing, (which was super expensive by the way because you know – it’s your favorite) and proudly present the beautifully arranged masterpiece to you as they step through the door. Man, they know they hit a home run, you know they hit a home run and immediately tension is released in the house. Your friendship seems closer already because they’ve demonstrated care and concern for you as a person and the night goes smoothly. Wouldn’t you invite them over again? Of course! Same goes for when you can confidently hand a present over to your Chinese host, colleagues, or staff. With some thought, a little bit of nuisance to you even, you have the ability to immediately build bridges for a smooth evening and future relationship.
The worst house guest ever
And of course, the opposite holds true as well. Let’s say that same couple did zero research and brought you a cheap-o dessert, all smashed up from a bumpy taxi ride, covered in nuts, when you’re deathly allergic. That night wouldn’t have gone super smoothly from the get-go, would it? With a bit of work, the evening would be recoverable, but it certainly wouldn’t go as great as your fav dessert showing up at the door. It’s the same thing – relationships are recoverable for locals too, it’s just why have to mend something you broke, when you could put in some time on the front end and fortify bonds from the get-go.
Like it or not, I get the sense that gift-giving keeps it’s own little scorecard. I like to see gift-giving scored like the SSAT. In that standardized test, you get a quarter of a point off for every wrong answer, but a full point added for a correct one. So in that test you’re encouraged to guess because 1 right move cancels out 4 wrong; as a ‘laowai’ I think we are afforded that sort of grace; yet I like to look not at the wiggle room we’re given to fail, but at the advantage we can gain by doing it right from the start. Four right moves give you some serious margin to get ahead. In China, you will find you make strides faster within the local community, with your friends, coworkers and staff if you put in the time to learn and begin to score some points right off the bat, instead of having to make a come back from failure.
Ally gives a death wish – by mistake!
So if you’re not yet convinced it’s important to get some of these basics down, I’ll tell you my most horrifying story to hopefully inspire you. I was not always so up-to-date on basic Chinese gift giving culture. When I lived in Panjin in Liaoning, I was invited to the birthday dinner for a friend’s grandmother’s 80th birthday. It would be the first time she ever met a foreigner face-to-face and I was thrilled to have that honor. I bought her something, I don’t remember what, but I wrapped it with outrageous care and concern in a beautiful white, shiny wrapping paper. My friend got to my house to pick me up, saw the gift, which I was wildly proud of, and immediately his face went ash grey and he started fidgeting. I knew I had done something wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it and there was this miserable awkwardness in the air that you could cut with a knife. Well, right before we left, he finally couldn’t stand it anymore and he asked if we could rewrap the gift in a color other than white. He ripped the white paper off and haphazardly wrapped it in old newspaper I had lying around. I was horrified and yet he seemed fully satisfied as we left my home together in dead silence. Turns out that the Chinese use white for funerals, gifts are NEVER wrapped in white, and by me wrapping his elderly grandma’s gift in white, it was the equivalent of me wishing death to come upon her in the year to come. I was horrified and more importantly so was he! The entire day was awkward. Was it a recoverable mistake, yes, and thank goodness he caught it early before grandma had actually seen it. I’m not sure that would have been mendable. But it honestly took months of conscious effort to get our friendship up to par, and it all could have been avoided by a little bit of groundwork on my part.
So no white for birthdays! Or any gifts really. Got that one? Check!
Don’t get caught up on finding the perfect thing
OK let’s get into some others. One disclaimer first: discussing gift giving is tricky; there are definite faux pas, like wrapping in white, and then there are general guidelines you can follow. Again, in every city, in every village and in every home there will be some variation. Just like I said in yesterday’s episode, this sort of cultural understanding is not a one-size-fits-all thing. I encourage you to go out an ask around your own community to find what’s appropriate (just like the fantastic house guests did in the example above!)
Why is a ‘laowai’ talking about this?
And there’s a second disclaimer as well. I am not Chinese. I’m an American from a small town in southern Rhode Island. You might ask what credentials I have to attempt to unfold the art of Chinese gift giving. A lot of trial and error, coupled with some blood, sweat and tears, I’d say. I have fought hard, and have fallen hard for any ounce of the cultural understanding that I do have. I care about China and it’s people. I want to fit in to the best of my ability. I want to make friends. I want to do it right. Over the years I have been blessed with many Chinese who have taken a special interest in me and my life and wanted to help me acclimate into China and understand China in a comprehensive way. My family and I are localized here and plan to be here for as long as our life plan currently extends. I have a lot of stake in this nation and this community and so in many ways my success and the future of my family depend on a proper, working knowledge of how to function effectively within the realm of Chinese culture. My goal is to build bridges and avoid putting cracks in strong foundations at any and all cost. I’ve seen the magic of guanxi when it is nurtured and is working smoothly, and I’ve seen the detriment of mishandling guanxi in personal and professional relationships. They care, so I care, and I believe caring with enrich and better your experience in China, too. So let’s get into it!
Going to a local’s home for a meal
First, my general guidelines for walking into someone’s home with a gift, be it at Chinese New Year or at any other occasion:
Can’t go wrong with food and drink – alcohol (a nice foreign bottle), a nice loose-leaf tea, fruit, imported chocolate, dried foods, nibbles and munchies are all awesome gifts. Just be sure to follow some of the guidelines below to make sure your gift is awesome enough to smooth that relationship (Think of it as a slice of your fav cake vs. the whole thing!) It’s time to bring out the big guns if you’re looking to impress!
The pricier the better – if you have the choice between a fruit basket for 200 RMB or one for 100 RMB, and have the funds to go for the 200 RMB basket, do it! The Chinese know the value of almost every gift that will come through their doors, into their hands at any time. It’s just a skill they have and they practice all the time so the pricier the better. Go with whatever level of budget you can manage, of course, and picking up anything will go a long way, yet if possible, in Shanghai I find 200 RMB-ish to be a good range for a first formal dinner at a friend’s home if you’re really looking to impress. This number will vary depending on social status and location so make sure you do your homework.
The bigger the better – go lavish even if it means lugging that expensive and heavy fruit basket across the city on the metro. This show of you going out of your way will not go unnoticed.
The redder the better – red is the color of the CNY season but the well-wishing effect of red extends all year round; wrap up, tie up, bow-tie up your gift in red and you’ll get points for bringing more of this auspicious color into the home. Really, you can wrap in red to be safe for all occasions (except funerals, of course)
Gift boxes are all the rage – That’s why you’ll see Carrefour chock full at CNY time with beautiful boxes towering to the ceiling. You’ll pay a pretty penny but it is a some-what safe and easy route for a novice to take. If you don’t know what to get, hang around the displays at Carrefour and find the one that seems to be getting the most traffic. Pick up the box, buy it and go on your merry way. Make sure you’ll be OK to try it just in case your host cracks it open in your company. It’ll be really hard to refuse a taste at that point!
Give something that can last – The Chinese will spend many days entertaining family and friends. Give something that is individually wrapped and that can be handed out throughout the CNY season. That way, your host gets to keep on giving your fantastic gift to please his other guests.
Don’t be offended if they don’t ‘oooh’ and ‘aaaah’ over your gift, or open it at all – this was definitely one of the oddest things for me to get used to. Many Chinese won’t open your gift in front of you if it’s wrapped and you need not to be offended. It’s just the way it goes. (And you need to not open a gift in front of them if possible, but we’ll get into that in a minute!) If the gift you’ve brought is perishable, and they don’t break it out over the course of the evening, don’t worry! It’s doesn’t mean they don’t love it. Maybe they’re saving it for their next dinner party (which is a massive win!). In this area, you’re expected to bring a gift and so it’s not made into a big deal. Hand it over, confident that you didn’t offend, and enjoy the lavish evening that lay ahead of you. After all, what’s a 200 RMB gift when they’ve undoubtedly gone way out of their way and budget to prepare an amazing evening for you as their guest.
The best gift ever
Here’s a mini brain break as an illustration for you. I used to tutor this class of 8-year-old Chinese students. On my last class, one of the moms handed me a beautiful gift bag with two small boxes inside. I was naturally anxious to see what the goodies were but thanked her with a smile and then promptly put the gift, unopened, down on a chair and began class. In my home country, that would have been wildly rude, but here, it went unnoticed and was actually appreciated by the mom. You see, she was the only one who had given me a gift and to open it in front of the others would have made them lose face.
Later on after class as everyone was milling around, she called me over to the gift bag. While she opened the gift for me (which is another thing I had to get used to and now totally do when I give gifts!), she explained how she had gone about picking out the most beautiful set of dainty coffee cups I have ever seen. It was the perfect gift, you see – beautiful, expensive and ridiculously thoughtful because she knows how much Ron and I love coffee. She didn’t buy just one, but a pair for the two of us which is more auspicious than just one; she explained how she chose a pattern that she thought would appeal to our western tastes. It was a grand slam exchange on both sides, yet part of that success was me knowing to wait until she felt the time was right for her to privately dive into the explanation of just how amazing the gift actually was. It would have been embarrassing for her to have to go into it in front of the others or she wouldn’t have at all and then would have lost all opportunity for her thoughtfulness to shine – an aspect very closely related to gift-giving as well.
Do you see how important these exchanges can be for maintain and building incredible relationships? I’ll say it again: it’s worth diving into and adding a bit of this into your own DNA to enrich your experiences with the Chinese. With a bit of effort, it will begin to come naturally and you’ll actually begin to enjoy it.
Gifts are reciprocal in nature
Lastly, I must caution you. Gifts are very much reciprocal in China. Traditionally, what I give you, I almost expect that level to come back to me the next go around. It’s a very tit-for-tat culture in most circles and that’s fine, as long as you don’t out-gift someone who you know can’t afford to reciprocate. For example, when I go to my Chinese coworkers home for the first time, I might bring about 50RMB to 100RMB worth of fruit. I might throw an exotic fruit like a dragon fruit in there to show that I took some time to choose something special to thank them for their hospitality. It’s also something that they know it’s something that with a ‘laowai’ salary I can afford so it’s reasonable.
That might be a lot of money for a local Chinese though. So when I invite them to ours the next time, in response to a question like, “What can I bring?” I might specifically say, something like, “Pick up a small bag of clementines or a melon on your way, if you’d like.” They’d feel uncomfortable showing up empty handed, but I never would want to have them break the bank. Now, if I showed up with a bag of clementines and a melon I might be seen as a cheapskate. After all, they’ve undoubtedly gone out of their way to prepare something special for me. Alas, it’s complicated, but with practice and fumbling through some awkward situations you’ll find the right balance in your relationships. And take heart, as time goes on and the relationship gets stronger, I’ve found that gifts become less important for informal occasions like a simple meal at one’s home.
OK, it’s impossible to talk comprehensively about gifts without covering hóngbāo so let’s do it.
What is it? – Hóngbāo literally means red envelope and in China hóngbāo are filled with cash and used as gifts in many different circumstances. They aren’t the end-all-be-all of gift giving though and you need to understand how and when to use hóngbāo appropriately. For example, if you’re going to a friend’s house for a meal at CNY, don’t toss them a hóngbāo. It’ll be considered thoughtless and impersonal. Consider one of the gifts outlined before instead. (But bring hóngbāo for the kids… there will be more on that below!)
Here are some appropriate occasions to use hóngbāo and some very general guidelines:
At CNY as a bonus – For ayis, typically it’s an agreed upon 13th month, or a fraction of a month’s salary depending on how long they’ve worked for you that year. For example, if they started halfway through, they’d get 50% of one month’s salary. If you’re feeling generous you could give more although you may be setting a precedent for the future. Give it before CNY break because she’ll probably need it over the holiday! I always negotiate this into a contract before an ayi starts so there are no surprises or unmet expectations come CNY time. How this topic is handled is very important to most ayis and indicates how their upcoming year may go.
Most drivers are contracted by companies so it’s harder to say what’s appropriate. Check around the office for what others are doing so you don’t have an unhappy driver on your hands.
At CNY to children – Going to a friend’s house for a CNY meal? Find out how many kids will be there and if possible you’d score major points if you had a hóngbāo will 50 or 100 RMB in each – one for each child. My kids have typically gotten a 100 RMB bill or two in each hóngbāo they’ve received and only more if it’s a really close friend.
At CNY to anyone you appreciate and want to build relationship with – This year, we’ve really been blessed with our girls’ teacher at their local school. She showers Brie and Jo with so much love and attention and the love is most definitely mutual. So we’ve decided that this year we want to bless her with a hóngbāo to show our appreciation. Because it’s the first year in 3 that we’re doing it, we’re planning on going big with 600 RMB – 6 representing a good flow and ease in her year ahead. God knows she needs it chasing my babies around all day!
And, guards at a compound may warrant some special treatment this time of year. It doesn’t have to be much (say in the 50 to 100 RMB category, remembering that they might make 20 or 25 RMB an hour at a good job) but it shows them that you care and you appreciate them standing out in every sort of weather to guard the entrance to your home.
At a wedding – For an acquaintance 288 RMB symbolizes a pair and double joy and 388 RMB works out to well wishes for a birth and double joy. If you don’t want to get that fancy, go for an even amount without any 4s. The number four sounds like the sound for death and so is very much frowned upon in any social arena. My general rule of thumb, no one will baulk at more, but less may leave an insult. Be as generous as your wallet allows. As always in China, what goes around comes around. But whatever you choose to do, do not leave a wedding without giving a hóngbāo to the bride and groom.
At a baby shower, after the birth of a child or at their 100th-day celebration party – Babies are super important in China and their birth is often celebrated with a hóngbāo, or a nice gift and a hóngbāo depending on your relationship. Same rules apply about the number 4, and I’ve heard that 6s, 8s and 9s are great for babies. Sixes and eights because they’re just lucky all around and 9s because it’s associated meaning of longevity wishes the babe a long life. In terms of amount, air on the generous side of what you can afford and what you believe will bless the family.
We made it!
Phew! I hope this was comprehensive enough for you to feel confident getting your feet wet in this exciting part of Chinese culture but not too all-encompassing to the point where you’re feeling stymied from even trying. Like I said before, practice makes perfect and so much of this depends on your unique, individual relationships with local people. Unlike guanxi, which I believe is too big a topic to begin to cover in a podcast, I truly believe that the tenets of gift-giving can actually be mastered and is a worthy endeavor if you hope to build bridges with any local staff, friends or colleagues.
The future of gifts in China
In this country where the younger generations are becoming more and more westernized, will this even matter in a couple generations time? For me, I hope so, because it provides such a rich, diverse cultural context to life here that I have loved integrating into our own family traditions. If you can begin to understand and master this in a way, you’ll be one step closer to cultural fluency.
It’s time to share your expertise in this area. I would love it if you’d leave comments on this page and start a dialogue.
- Where have your experiences differed?
- What did I miss?
- Do you think it matters or do you squeak by just fine without playing the gift-exchange game?
- Better yet, tell us a story of when you blew it to give the rest of us who have failed time and time again a little chuckle!