Ask the Yangxifu: Why Does My Chinese Family Refuse My Gifts?

Gift box wrapped in silver paper with purple, blue and green stripes and a magenta bow
An American woman wonders why her Chinese in-laws seem upset every time she gives them a gift. Why do they always refuse what she buys for them? (photo by Irum Shahid)

Sam asks:

Recently, while I was at the grocery store, I saw a lovely bouquet of lilies. I thought they would look lovely in the kitchen, and decided to by them for my Chinese mother-in-law. I brought them home and put them in a vase. But when she came home and I told her they were for her, it seemed to stress her. She first tried to get me to say that they were just for myself, and then insisted that they were for the men in the house since Father’s Day had been the week before. We finally agreed that they were for everyone.

I can’t help but wonder if I did something wrong. My husband didn’t think so, but he’s been in the states for over 20 years now and isn’t always in the loop.

I had a similar experience when I came back from a trip. I had bought her a purse that I found on super-sale and thought she would like it. She kept on insisting that I would need it more than she would and that I should keep it for myself. It wasn’t until I told her I had bought myself something similar that she settled down and accepted it.

It is not uncommon for me to see something that I think a friend will like and buy it for them. Several times I’ve seen clothes that I know would fit my mother in law that would look good on her, but I am afraid I’ll terrify her or something. Do you have any insight?

—–

Sam, you didn’t do anything wrong. And neither did your in-laws, who are doing what any good, polite Chinese would do — refuse the gift first.

Giving gifts to your Chinese family (and even friends) can feel like a battle. Take my Chinese grandmother, for example. When I gave her some American ginseng tablets from the US, she scowled at me and even pushed them away with her hands, saying “I don’t want them, I don’t want them” while she shook her head. I’ve had to physically push gifts into her hands just to get her to accept them! My Chinese mother-in-law, while less combative, usually frowns when I present a gift, and tells me I shouldn’t waste my money or how she doesn’t need such a thing. Even my Chinese father-in-law, who accepts gifts more easily than the two of them, will protest and tell me not to bother.

No doesn’t really mean no, and doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate it (they do). But you have to say no and refuse, because otherwise — according to the culture — you’re not being polite.

There’s also a Chinese saying that goes lishang wanglai, renzhi changqing (礼尚往来,人之常情 – reciprocating gifts/favors is the way of the world). Chinese people may refuse because they don’t want the obligation that comes with the gift. Of course, given that your in-laws are close family that actually live with you, with endless opportunities to reciprocate, I imagine this is less of a worry for them.

In any event, don’t stress about it. If you want to give them a gift — if you see something that would make your mother-in-law look as lovely as Joan Chen — then go for it. Just expect them to fuss over it, just as I know my Chinese grandmother will grimace (and sometimes, even growl) at me when I give her gifts. It’s not the “Hallmark way” to show appreciation you might be used to. (But my Chinese grandmother’s reactions  sure would make a hell of a greeting card, wouldn’t it?) 😉

What do you think?

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17 thoughts on “Ask the Yangxifu: Why Does My Chinese Family Refuse My Gifts?

  • July 22, 2011 at 10:43 am
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    I agree with Jocelyn; it’s just the way of the Chinese People. You are not doing anything wrong. I have the same issue with my mother-in-law; I have to basically push things onto her and keep pushing for her to accept any presents or help of any kind. I do love to cook, though, and found a present my boyfriend’s parents will accept more easily: homemade food 😉 I think it’s thoughtful of you to think of your loved ones when you see something and getting it for them afterward. Keep pushing your mother-in-law and I’m sure with time it will get easier. Good luck!

    Reply
  • July 22, 2011 at 12:39 pm
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    My mother in law is the same way (she thinks of it as wasting money), so we just give her vitamins instead (which she appreciates). The price for vitamins in Taiwan is so expensive. We tried giving her clothes, purse, whatever. She doesn’t even wear them; they end up being abandoned in her closet. She does take the vitamins on a daily basis, so it’s a win win situation. My husband asks her, “What do you want?” She replies, “Vitamins!”

    Reply
  • July 22, 2011 at 4:38 pm
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    This is just simply modesty in the Chinese way, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t like your gifts. Actually she’ll probably even more upset if you never buy her anything.

    Reply
  • July 22, 2011 at 5:56 pm
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    Everything that’s been said is very true. I just want to emphasize the part about reciprocation.
    Ex: My grandmother gives me $100USD for my 8th birthday. I foolishly say “Thanks grandma!” and take the money, thinking I’m being polite. Cut to: my mom taking me aside and yelling at me for having no manners. Later she buys my grandma $200-worth of vitamins and ginseng.
    Basically, my mom was mad at me because my careless actions cost her money that she didn’t want to spend. My grandmother has no income so all her living costs are paid for by my mom and her sister. So by giving me money that originally came from my mom, my grandmother was seeking to reciprocate. However, filial piety dictates that my mom should be giving more to her mom so that’s why she had to buy the extra vitamins.
    I’m not saying all relationships are this complicated, but typically when receiving a gift, Chinese people are immediately thinking of how to reciprocate.

    Reply
  • July 22, 2011 at 9:23 pm
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    @kin
    yes its the Chinese way of showing modesty.
    @Jocelyn
    Well this is how I would put it. Someone I know, maybe a friend, buys me a gift, and what’s playing on my mind is this : if I accept the gift, what should I buy as a gift for this friend the next time I pay him/her a visit ? Its better to not accept the gift at first if you know what I mean. But most of the time, foreigners, especially those less knowledgeable about Chinese traditions, would interpret this as being unfriendly.

    Reply
  • July 23, 2011 at 12:30 am
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    What everyone else said! This is just the way Chinese people are about gifts. Probably since this is your MIL and not a random acquaintance or someone you’re trying to cultivate “guanxi” with, her refusal of the gifts has less to do with being worried about how to reciprocate (although that may be a factor too) and more just her being polite. Have you ever seen Chinese people fight over who pays the bill when you go out to eat? They’re not fighting to get out of paying either, but fighting over who GETS to pay! My husband and a good friend of his actually once almost came to blows because my husband wanted to pay their cab fare after a night out and the friend wouldn’t accept the money. It is the same with giving compliments too. When someone says something nice to you the culturally appropriate response in China is to deny deny deny (like even though my Chinese is pretty good, when I get compliments on it I always just say “oh, my Chinese isn’t that good, just so-so,)” whereas in the West we would say “thank you.” To accept anything too readily — gifts, money, compliments — is considered very rude in China.

    So don’t worry about offending your MIL with your gifts. I’m SURE she’s thrilled you are being such a filial daughter in law by thinking about her so often.

    Reply
    • September 15, 2017 at 10:20 pm
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      So, basically it’s self-righteous and conceited. In this scenario, I’m not actually a person for whom you legitimately wanted to do something nice for, I’m just a prop in your showy, Look-At-How-Generous-I-Am affected performance. You’re just going out of your way to *appear* to be generous. And I both know you’ll just use this ‘gift’ of yours as guilt-leverage if I ever say know to something you demand of me.

      Reply
  • July 23, 2011 at 11:30 am
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    @Sam, I am not too certain, but if the lilies you bought were white lillies, maybe that was why your MIL was not too keen about the gift. Chinese people normally like something bright e.g.red. White and black often remind them of mourning if I am not wrong. Other than that, it is mostly Chinese modesty at work. Of course, Chinese people appreciate gifts too although they normally don’t expect gifts from their loved ones.

    Reply
    • July 25, 2011 at 6:31 am
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      @Sam, I think the whole issue of reciprocity in terms of gifts/favors is more of a concern when it happens between people who have just met or are building a relationship (for example, people doing business or new acquaintances) than it is between family or close friends. That’s because close friends and family will always have opportunities to reciprocate — and that reciprocating doesn’t have to be as exacting as, say, buying the same type of thing in return for them (for exactly the same value, down to the dollars and cents). You might, for example, give your close friend a place to sleep next time they come through town, or you might invite your inlaws out to dinner (or make them a fancy dinner) as a way to thank them. There are endless ways to return the kindness, and it doesn’t always involve buying something at the store and boxing it up for them.

      There are times when you might refuse gifts, but that usually happens when the gift-giving is going on in a business setting among people who just met (and don’t want the burden of that obligation) or among new acquaintances. Otherwise, with friends and family, it would be offensive to refuse a gift outright.

      It’s even offensive to throw out the gifts of your family/friends, which I discovered when I suggested tossing out the stale puffed corn that has gone bad in this pressure cooker of a bedroom at my inlaws’ home. 😉

      Hope this helps!

      Reply
  • July 31, 2011 at 8:27 am
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    White means death and mourning in Chinese custom. Chinese wear white to funerals. In China, funerals usually have white lilies. Also, you are not supposed to give an empty wallet/purse to someone as a gift, you must put some money in it first, otherwise you are cursing them to a life of poverty. You need to study Chinese customs and traditions before giving gifts! Most Chinese like cash in a red lucky envelope as a gift anyway :-).

    Reply
  • January 13, 2012 at 9:32 pm
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    This is such a great topic! I remember my MIL loving a red scarf I was wearing, so I tried to give it to her. No no no no no. So I said I’d buy another one and send it to her. No no no no no. Finally I realized that to her way of thinking, a scarf = a handkerchief = sorrow = farewell. So no wonder she was panicking, and I was rather touched by this. I ended up buying her the scarf and then charging her something like $5 so that it was not a “gift”!

    Part of it too, I later realized, was that she wanted to be the adult and have me be the child, and the chance to bestow gifts is one of perks of being the adult. It was therefore a matter of pride to her.

    As XL noted above, though, vitamins are not really a gift in this parallel universe, but necessities, so they are okay. So is buying a 25 pound bag of rice and hauling it up to her apartment; the labor especially is appreciated, and it shows filial respect for her age. Although, I have to mention, she was stronger in her 80’s than I’ve ever been in my entire life. One time in her final years, I found that she had rearranged all of her furniture — including a heavy bed — all by herself! That’s a northern Chinese woman for you!

    Reply
  • July 5, 2012 at 10:54 pm
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    Reply
  • August 4, 2014 at 6:02 pm
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    hello everybody, i need some some i am going to china at the end of this month to meet my family for the very first time and i need some help finding presents for her mum and grandparents as i already have her dad gift. i just wanna know what gift would be ideal for them

    Reply
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  • June 10, 2016 at 2:43 am
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    Refusing stuff at first is seen polite in Romania as well.
    This is especially true when it comes to edible stuff [food and drinks that is]: you have to refuse if you don’t want to be labeled as “that pig/whale who can’t wait to put their hands on something to eat” .. [in a more or less rude combination of words].
    Refusing gifts is also polite – but mostly done because you have to give something in return the next time [the value doesn’t matter, but the gesture itself does: this is why we often remove the price tag LOL]

    Reply
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