Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of e-mails with the same question:
What gifts should I give to my Chinese boyfriend/girlfriend/friend and their family during Chinese New Year?
So to answer that, I’ve compiled a simple guide for navigating the world of gift-giving during Chinese New Year.
If you’re family — or will be family — of your Chinese hosts for the New Year, consider adding clothes to your gift-shopping list. In my Chinese husband’s family, it’s traditional to start the new Lunar year dressed in a new outfit from head to toe.
Don’t worry, though — chances are, no one expects you to furnish everyone in the family with a new set of clothes. That said, you might at least consider buying your boyfriend/husband or girlfriend/wife a little something special that will keep them warm, such as a new sweater or knit shirt, a new coat, a new hat and gloves, or even a new pair of socks. Opt for anything in red or pink, those auspicious colors for the new year.
And remember — if your Chinese sweetheart is about to enter their Chinese zodiac year (also known as their ben ming nian — běnmìngnián, 本命年)), don’t forget to buy them some red underwear! (See my ben ming nian gift-giving guide for more on this, as well as other gift suggestions.)
Nourishing and Nutritious Foods/Supplements/Herbs
As the Chinese saying goes, dongling jinbu (冬令进补) — roughly, winter is the time to nourish your body. And Chinese New Year is the time to give gifts of nourishing foods, supplements and herbs.
In supermarkets in Mainland China, Taiwan and beyond, you’ll find an entire aisle devoted to nutritious herbs and medicines, usually already boxed and ready to gift — royal jelly, ginseng root, spirulina, and more. Beware, though — many of these items are for more senior folks, which means a twenty-something Chinese relative might not necessarily appreciate your ginseng root. Ask the store’s associates — or, better yet, your Chinese sweetheart/friends — for suggestions on what to purchase. And note that, for American ginseng, you can’t beat the Prince of Peace brand.
Some of the best — and safest — bets for this category include upscale versions of those nutritious foods that Chinese families commonly enjoy in the winter months. Think guiyuan, Chinese jujubes, gouqi (wolfberries), or even black sesame seeds. Opt for organic or “green” choices where available, and be sure to get it boxed and/or wrapped to make a good impression.
Chinese also love nourishing teas — such as those made from ginseng, or even the ginger/Chinese jujube one I discovered in the summer of 2011.
Don’t forget one of the most nourishing options — vitamins. You’re usually better off giving them to your senior family members, and keep in mind my previous advice:
You don’t even need to buy them in your home country either; Watson’s sells an excellent line of high-quality vitamins and supplements. So do many large supermarkets. Amway has some, but a more limited selection. That’s why Watson’s K-Lex line is a favorite. They have everything from a basic multivitamin to Coenzyme Q10. Another bonus of buying in China? You don’t have to write out instructions for them in English.
And here, if you’re buying them abroad:
Nowadays, foreign-made vitamin supplements are just as ubiquitous in China as McDonald’s — but that doesn’t mean you should always buy in China. After all, sometimes the relatives appreciate the cache of foreign-bought gifts.
Sometimes you can score better quality for less abroad. Whole Foods, for example, offers great value with fish oil supplements, multivitamins, vitamin E and more, under their 365 brand. The same could easily apply to many quality supermarkets across the Western world.
Or, in other cases, you find something impossible to get in China. Years ago in Hangzhou, my neighbors begged me to buy Amway’s garlic supplements (not sold in China) during my trip back to the US.
Spirits and Smokes
Not sure what to buy for the men in your Chinese family? Consider boxed/wrapped fine spirits or cigarettes, either of which will find a welcome home during the many dinners and social visits during the holidays. In China, the foreign brands still hold more cache, so consider my previous advice:
Alcohol. If he’s a drinker, consider picking up a foreign brand of scotch, whisky or brandy, such as Jack Daniels, Johnnie Walker or Glenlivet. Chinese men will also love French or Italian wines as gifts.
Cigarettes. Foreign smokes still light up many a Chinese man’s face — as a gift. Consider major brands such as Marlboro or John Player.
Fruits, Nuts and Candies
“Here, have an orange.” Whenever I visit someone’s home in Chinese New Year, invariably someone thrusts a piece of fruit into my hands — and more often than not, they’ll also push trays bursting with mixed nuts/sunflower seeds and individually wrapped candies right in front of me.
So guess what also makes a nice gift during the Chinese New Year holiday?
When in doubt, go for a fruit basket, preferably with something more exotic than the local apples. Though keep in mind, auspicious choices include oranges and Mandarin oranges (they remind people of golden coins), but not pears (whose Chinese name sounds like the word for separation).
If you opt for nuts or candies, make sure they’re something unusual or special. In other words, avoid the peanuts but go for the hickory nuts or Chinese nutmeg yew nuts (delish!). For candies, if you really want to make a splash, choose a foreign brand such as Godiva Chocolates.
Whatever you choose, remember that presentation matters. So, if it isn’t already, don’t forget to box it and wrap it!
What did I miss? What else would you recommend as gifts?
Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China/Chinese culture (or Western culture)? Send me yours today.