Ask the Yangxifu: Why Does My Chinese Family Refuse My Gifts? | Speaking of China

17 Responses

  1. Nathalie
    Nathalie July 22, 2011 at 10:43 am | | Reply

    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!

  2. Eileen
    Eileen July 22, 2011 at 12:39 pm | | Reply

    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!”

  3. Kin
    Kin July 22, 2011 at 4:38 pm | | Reply

    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.

  4. xl
    xl July 22, 2011 at 5:56 pm | | Reply

    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.

  5. sam
    sam July 22, 2011 at 9:23 pm | | Reply

    @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.

  6. Jessica
    Jessica July 23, 2011 at 12:30 am | | Reply

    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.

    1. Lothal
      Lothal September 15, 2017 at 10:20 pm | | Reply

      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.

  7. ordinary malaysian
    ordinary malaysian July 23, 2011 at 11:30 am | | Reply

    @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.

  8. Hibiscus Hilo
    Hibiscus Hilo July 31, 2011 at 8:27 am | | Reply

    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 :-).

  9. Carolyn J. Phillips
    Carolyn J. Phillips January 13, 2012 at 9:32 pm | | Reply

    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!

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  11. andy dabbs
    andy dabbs August 4, 2014 at 6:02 pm | | Reply

    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

  12. K
    K June 10, 2016 at 2:43 am | | Reply

    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]

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