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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