Ask the Yangxifu: Birthday Gifts for Chinese Men

Birthday cake lit with candles
Chinese men don't usually celebrate birthdays. But a Western woman may never see her Chinese friend again, and wants to give him something to remember her by. (Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian)

foreign friend asks:

My 哥哥‘s birthday is coming up in the first week of March, and I want to give him a gift…. And he’s actually leaving soon, to China…next month as well and I want to give him something that he will remember me by. (I’m just kind of worried that in the future, he’ll forget about me…and just move on with our friendship, because he’s not coming back to our city where we attend school at.)

I know, from reading one of your articles about your husband and celebrating his birthday, is not that big in Chinese culture, but I just am wondering, what’s the best gift?

——

It’s definitely NOT the chocolate cake I made for my husband’s last birthday (which wouldn’t pack well, either). 😉

Interestingly, when I did some searching online, there are actually websites in China with tons of birthday present suggestions (like this one). Of course, people don’t usually give gifts. But when it’s a special birthday (60 years old for example)  — or, in your case, a special circumstance — Chinese will dip into their pockets to buy a little something. In fact, it’s not uncommon for boyfriends and girlfriends in China to give birthday gifts while they are in the “dating phase” of their relationship (that’s 谈恋爱 [tánliàn’ài], something this married woman has long since passed).

Of course, he’s not your boyfriend — but a lot of the suggested gifts I’ve seen for the boyfriend would be perfect for him too. And most of what I’m going to recommend could easily be bought at a store like Things Remembered, where you can also get it engraved for the ultimate “remember me” gift:

  • Keychains. It could be something useful, such as one with flashlight or a USB drive, or just plain lovely.
  • Wallets and money clips. Chinese guys love nice leather wallets, and classy money clips to keep their cash organized.
  • Business card cases. Every Chinese — man or woman — carries a stash of business cards. Give him a classic, metal-plated one to remember you by.
  • Leather briefcase or messenger bag. This is a little more pricey than the other suggestions, and chances are, you can’t engrave it. Still, it’s practical, and he’ll love taking it to work everyday — which means he won’t forget you either. Buy at a department store.
  • Unique electronic devices. This is an idea inspired by my Chinese husband, whose eyes open as wide as a 1 yuan coin whenever he sees any kind of cool electronic toy. Some of these get a little pricier, but you can start your search at Brookstone, which has some of the most innovative and memorable electronic gifts I’ve ever seen.

Whatever you buy, be sure to get a gift box with it — it’s a must in China for giving gifts.

Chocolate cake, however, is not. Still, if you have a great recipe — or know a great bakery — you can follow up that gift with a sweet surprise in the form of a birthday cake. You can’t permanently engrave that, of course. But it’s often the memories that outlast any gift we’ll ever give. 😉

Good luck!

What do you think? What would you recommend?

——

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18 thoughts on “Ask the Yangxifu: Birthday Gifts for Chinese Men

  • February 25, 2011 at 6:08 am
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    If he likes to read, a really nice bookmark (not expensive, just unique and nice). If he writes a lot (doubtful given everyone types nowadays but throwing it out there anyways), a good pen. Something that he might use daily so he would be using it and remember you.

    Reply
  • February 25, 2011 at 8:00 am
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    How about a nice watch, if you could afford it? With an engraving on the back?

    Men are hard to shop for, Chinese or not. My husband is impossible. He always says he doesn’t want/need anything. He loves gadgets so they’re always a safe bet but not very personal and they don’t really scream “remember me.”

    In your case since he might not see you again I’d go for something keepsake-y. A nice wallet, business card holder, or a good man-purse, sorry, messenger bag (!) are all good ideas too.

    Reply
  • February 25, 2011 at 11:20 am
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    Honestly to tell you the truth, as a Canadian born Chinese, we are actually not offended with “lucky money”. It saves so much headache and trouble for the person trying to buy the gift. When it comes to gadgets we know which one we want, and if it requires a lot of technical knowledge then you’re just better off with a gift certificate or money.

    If you feel inclined to give more thought into it then you can go two routes: The practical route, or the quirky geeky route. We love them both.

    While the practical route is things like listed above, there’s the utterly memorable stuff. Actually thinkgeek.com is a fantastic resource for quirky goods. They have things for every single geek.

    The only thing that is absolutely taboo is clocks. NEVER EVER give a clock/watch as a gift to a Chinese person (maybe Asian, but definately Chinese). It’s a reference to saying “Time to die”. So anything that symbolizes death is also bad. 🙂

    – Brian

    Reply
  • February 25, 2011 at 1:31 pm
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    Whenever my wife goes shopping, she buys clothes for me except for shoes ( I like to select my styles). Usually, if you have your own home, men like tools. I don’t know if other Chinese men like to fix things but I do :).

    Reply
  • February 25, 2011 at 2:38 pm
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    Bruce, My boyfriend also likes fixing things, if a shelf fell down or got loose he would take out a hammer and start banging it around. or even I wear glasses the odd time the tiny screw becomes loose he likes to use his tiny screwdriver to fix it. He especially loves making things so Ikea is great for buying things to make I am not sure if you have that in the US. But anyway tools don’t really scream remember me forever….

    But yes definitely I agree with what you have above, I especially like your wallet idea, because every man likes a good wallet

    Reply
  • February 25, 2011 at 6:21 pm
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    All good ideas! I would offer two ‘warnings’ though!

    When I FIRST started dating my husband I bought him a mug for Christmas…he loves to drink tea and it was a pair so I thought we could each have one! What I didn’t know was that ‘beizi’ or cup, had another meaning, “lifetime” so I was apparently telling him that I wanted to spend my life with him! Wow…nobody warned me about that! 😉 Also, I love Jocelyn’s idea about the birthday cake but make sure you get one that’s not too sweet…a lot of Chinese guys don’t grow up eating many sweets. I recently made birthday muffins for my husband. 🙂

    Happy shopping!!

    Reply
  • February 26, 2011 at 12:22 am
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    Haha I totally forgot about the clock thing! Scratch the watch idea then.

    Reply
  • February 26, 2011 at 9:47 am
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    送鐘 corhymes with 送終,a big no-no.

    Reply
  • February 26, 2011 at 3:22 pm
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    Brian is right. To give watch/clock as a gift is taboo to the Chinese. Here, the Hokkiens call it “sway”, bad luck. A nice wallet may be a good idea if the guy likes you, as something to remember you by.

    Reply
  • February 26, 2011 at 4:10 pm
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    Asian people don’t like their cakes and desserts too sweet and too creamy. We like them light. Seriously, men don’t shop often. My wife buys all my shirts and pants for me because she knows my size. All the tools , fresh and salt water fishing tackles , firearms ( personal hobby), plants & trees and outdoor living stuff etc, I take care of those items. Whatever she buys I wear unless it’s pink color..well.. I wore a pink reddish shirt that she bought for me :).

    Reply
  • February 26, 2011 at 11:09 pm
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    What about masculine jewelry, or is this something that’s a taboo thing as well? haha~

    Reply
  • February 27, 2011 at 4:59 am
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    take his virginity will alway be a good gift.

    Reply
    • February 28, 2011 at 1:22 pm
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      Thanks to everyone for chiming in on this issue! You’ve offered some great suggestions — and good point on the cake. (The recipe I use is not that sweet, actually, but I neglected to mention that).

      Holly, you asked about jewelry? I think it depends on the guy, but most of the Chinese men I know (my husband included) don’t wear a lot of jewelry, except jade pendants (the kind you wear around your neck with a red string) and wristwatches (a bad gift for the reasons mentioned before). Unless you’re absolutely certain he likes a certain type of jewelry, I would avoid buying it for him.

      Reply
  • February 28, 2011 at 2:25 pm
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    @Jocelyn: Do you think you can post the cake recipe? I might not have time to buy a gift before Friday. (ACT testing this week at school.)
    (I asked my friend if he likes cake and he said he does.) I know he doesn’t like sweet things, because when it was Mid-Autumn festival, I bought moon cake and he told me he doesn’t like it because it’s too sweet.

    Reply
    • February 28, 2011 at 3:03 pm
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      Sure Holly. This is a Vegan Chocolate Cake recipe that I found in Leah Leneman’s Vegan Cooking for Everyone. My husband loves it so much, I even make it for him for breakfast (sans frosting):

      Vegan chocolate cake

      2/3 cup honey (Jocelyn’s note – you can also do this w/ raw cane sugar, but honey is less sweet and seems to work a lot better)
      4 teaspoons cocoa or carob powder
      1/2 teaspoon sea salt
      1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
      3/4 teaspoon baking soda
      1/3 cup vegetable oil
      1 teaspoon vanilla extract
      2 teaspoons cider vinegar or wine vinegar
      3/4 cup cold water

      Mix thoroughly the sugar, cocoa or carob, salt, flour and baking soda in a mixing bowl.
      Add the oil, vanilla extract, and vinegar, and pour cold water over the mixture.
      Combine well with a fork, but do not beat.
      Pour into two oiled cake pans (or one) — lined if desired — and bake in a moderate oven at 350 F for 30 minutes, or until the cake springs back when lightly pressed. Leave to cool thoroughly.

      Chocolate icing

      1/4 cup vegan margarine
      1/4 cocoa or carob powder
      4 tablespoons soy milk (or rice milk or almond milk — whatever you prefer)
      5/6 cup raw cane sugar
      1 teaspoon vanilla extract

      Combine the first four ingredients in a saucepan and bring them to a boil slowly, stirring constantly.
      Boil for 1 minute.
      Remove from heat and beat until cold. Add the vanilla extract and spread the icing on the cake.

      Reply
  • Pingback:Ask the Yangxifu: Holiday Gift Roundup for Chinese Friends & Loved Ones | Speaking of China

  • September 20, 2016 at 1:55 pm
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    Hi Jocelyn!
    I have a major crush on a Chinese coworker, but I’m having a hard time figuring out the cultural differences. When visiting home, he brougth me back a gift, a perfume. So I have two questions:

    1. How should I interpret the gift? Is it just a present ir could it mean something else?

    2. His birthday is in less than two months. Is it correct for me to give him a perfume as well?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • September 23, 2016 at 10:32 am
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      Hi Elisa,

      The gift could mean he’s interested in you, but it’s always hard to say with certainty. Yes, you could give him perfume if you think that’s something he might like as a gift.

      Reply

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