As we head into the festive season, we take a look at cultural differences when it comes to gift-giving in Asia. In most western countries, Christmas is the biggest holiday of the year. Beyond the midnight masses, decorated trees and carols, the holiday is known mostly for giving (and getting!) gifts. But beyond Christmas and birthdays, gifts aren’t really a common theme for westerners. However, in Asia, every day is gift-giving day!
Well… sort of. In Asia, small gifts take the place of saying thanks, doing something nice, or even offering verbal support for a job well done, and are usually a one-way deal – no reciprocation necessary. If you’re invited to a friend’s house for dinner, a private business event, or a party of some type – gift time! But it’s also important not to make a show of it – don’t ask anyone to pose with your gift or be like Aunt Margaret and say “Open it! Open it!” while everyone stares and you have to stand there smiling while your step-dad takes photos with the lens cap on. Give the gift, say thank you, and move along.
It’s also quite common to reject a gift – at first. Unlike Christmas, where kids will inevitably sit amid the detritus of their loot and say “Is there more?”, it’s customary in Asia to say something like, “Oh, no gift necessary, thank you so much” when someone presents you with one. It’s a bit of a production actually, because then you say something like, “Please, I insist, it’s the least I can do” and they say, “Oh, well, thank you very much then.” You’re basically performing a rehearsed script. Silly practice? Yes, kind of. Common practice? Absolutely.
The practice has significantly more meaning and nuance in Japan and China than other Asian countries. In Japan, for instance, you never throw the wrapping away, as that’s considered part of the gift. In China, an entire industry has sprung up around giving money to people in red – and only red – envelopes. If they ever invent a time machine, we’re going back a few hundred years to patent red paper making in China. In Japan, clocks are a nice gift. In China, they are to be avoided at all costs.
But other countries also have expectations and protocol around gift-giving. We see it all the time in Thailand, where you’re expected to bring back snacks for your coworkers after a trip. Indeed, one of the things you will always see in a Thai office is a table overloaded with snacks and candy, brought back by returning coworkers. How a box of chocolate ever stays stocked for longer than a few hours is a testament to the willpower of Thais (burp).
So now you know the basics of how to give a gift – the question remaining is what to give?
Remember – it doesn’t have to be big, but a gift should be something with sentimental meaning, aesthetic value, or something that can be used. Nice tea, a little clock or picture frame, a scented candle, or a book that has some connection to your relationship with the person you’re giving it to would all be perfectly fine. Avoid flowers, which are usually okay but sometimes not, due to their association with funerals. Booze is still generally fine, unless, of course, you’re in a predominantly Muslim country like Malaysia. Obviously, you should do a bit of research into your particular situation before you go gift shopping.
And what about weddings? We think that Asians have figured out a great way to avoid the typically finicky and sometimes presumptive tradition of buying a wedding gift; if you go to an Asian wedding, a fine envelope of cash will do nicely. But be warned – the new couple will be keeping track of who gave what, and if you ever invite them to your wedding, their gift to you will likely be more than you gave to them.
Then there’s New Year. A tradition of corporations sending small gifts to their patrons and clients and gift exchanges amongst coworkers and extended family members developed in the mid-1900s in Japan, no doubt encouraged by the emerging department stores. In Thailand, Thais traditionally exchanged gifts among family and friends during Songkran, the Thai New Year. This has gradually swung to the end of the Gregorian calendar year with supermarkets jumping on the bandwagon offering hampers of comfort foods and drinks ranging from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars. It has turned into quite an industry with many online businesses selling and delivering millions of hampers throughout Thailand each year.
And if you think giving gifts in Asia is confusing, just remember that westerners celebrate Christmas – a Roman holiday grafted onto a Christian celebration that uses the legend of a Turkish saint to justify giving gifts. It seems that gift-giving is not as simple as it seems, no matter where in the world you are. However, the universal emotion and intention is shared by all, it’s the thought that counts.
Merry Christmas to all!
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