Giving Gifts to your Chinese family - A Modest Guide | Speaking of China

55 Responses

  1. melanie gao
    melanie gao November 29, 2009 at 5:43 pm | | Reply

    You know how they say married couples fight over three things – money, sex and the kids? In my marriage “gift giving” will trump all of those. I have learned so much in this area over this years, and every single lesson was painful. Here are my thoughts.

    Sweets: Good idea to suggest buying ones made in China for the Chinese palette. I have spent hours laboring over cakes and cookies, only to have my in-laws or friends reject them as too sweet. Even if I cut the sugar in half! And forget about gifting American treats like Oreos or Reese’s peanut butter cups – those are definitely too sweet. Other flavors to avoid: licorice or mint-flavored chocolate.

    Re-gifting: It hurt my feelings so badly the first time someone in my husband’s family re-gifted something that I had carefully chosen just for them. But I had to get over it. I learned to stop spending so much time choosing a gift that was perfect for them. Instead I started focusing on gifts that could be easily re-gifted! Gloves for example are a good gift that can be easily re-gifted if necessary. Brand-name handbags are another, as well as high-end moisturizers. Lipstick is bad, as are shoes, foundation and anything monogrammed. In the end I realized that re-gifting isn’t meant as an insult to the giver, and it doesn’t mean the recipient wasn’t grateful. And people do it the U.S. as well, they just try to hide it a little more.

    Cigarettes: This one is tough! Naturally I don’t want to encourage people to smoke, but if I know someone is a smoker and they will spend lots of money on tobacco, and if I’m going to give them a gift anyway and I want to give them something they can really use, well, cigarettes are perfect. They’re light and easy to transport, they won’t go bad. And they can be easily re-gifted!

    For kids: Lego’s. They’re so expensive in China. And all the kids here I know love them.

    Avoid: Skin-bronzing products. It would be like giving an American a product that would turn their teeth yellow! 🙂 (On a side note, I am forever perplexed by the fact that Americans are obsessed with whitening their teeth and Asians are obsessed with whitening their skin, but neither has infected the other with their obsession.)

  2. pug_ster
    pug_ster November 30, 2009 at 9:00 am | | Reply

    You’re right about the vitamins thing. I know some of my wife’s co-workers who comes to the States from China for the first time and the first store they go to is GNC. Also, my wife’s co-workers from China like us to buy vitamins in bulk, namely from costco.

  3. KSL
    KSL December 17, 2009 at 11:22 am | | Reply

    Along the same lines as vitamins, fish oil supplements are pretty big right now. On re-gifting – I think it’s much more openly accepted in China than in the U.S. When my mother re-gifts, she will often tell her recipient that the item was a gift from someone else.

  4. Susan
    Susan December 17, 2009 at 9:58 pm | | Reply

    About the re-gifting, my experience is that it’s extremely common, quite acceptable, and part of the social “grease” in parts of Chinese society. In fact, this subject of re-gifting causes me to wonder if the Chinese invented it! I also wonder if it’s ever been studied by any sociologist (my geeky academic side at work). The re-gifting culture has ended up helping us here, since we’ve been given alot of things we neither can use nor have space for in our luggage going home, and it’s handy to re-give when you are taken to dinner (etc.) by yet another person, as a show of thanks. I won’t go into the countless (and sometimes bewildering) examples we’ve experienced here, but suffice it to say, you are likely helping out your relative, even if they re-gift the item you give them, since there’s always someone they’ll need to give a gift to!

  5. Abee
    Abee January 6, 2010 at 3:55 am | | Reply

    I appreciate the post/suggestions! =) Your knowledgeable perspective on this topic is great help.

  6. corvidae
    corvidae July 25, 2010 at 9:39 am | | Reply

    I love your guide! I am a very white girl who has just married into a very traditional Chinese family. They visited us (my mother in law, her mother, and her aunt and uncle) a couple of weeks ago, and as much time as I spent fretting over whether my house was clean enough, the beds were firm enough, whether I was saying and doing everything I could to make them feel comfortable… what they liked best about their visit was the fresh melon and oranges I served for snacks and dessert. When they left for the train station, I packed some sliced honey dew and watermelon for their trip. I guess I did the right thing, because they told my partner how much they appreciated it!

    What I gained from this experience was to stop fretting so much about WHAT I’m giving… they appreciated the effort, and that I was thinking of them ahead of myself, more than anything!

    (A side note, my mother in law was most offended when I kept offering to pay for things!)

  7. AmericanFamily
    AmericanFamily July 27, 2010 at 3:08 pm | | Reply

    I need help! I need to buy a gift for the children of someone who is helping us in China. They are an 18 year old girl (heading to college) and a 14 year old boy. It needs to be small because I am sending them with a friend who is lugging a ton of other stuff to china. I have no idea what to buy. I was hoping to spend less than $25 on each of them. I have received suggestions for 4GB thumb drives (easy enough) or North face backpacks (too expensive!). Any suggestions would be much appreciated!

  8. Tim
    Tim July 31, 2010 at 9:47 am | | Reply

    What about gifts for the wife or fiancee? (I’m American, she’s Chinese).

    Also, I love the re-gifting; if you believe that the gift is in the giving, it shouldn’t matter to you what someone does with it after you give it (except for very expensive items, I suppose).

  9. mother of the sister in law
    mother of the sister in law October 24, 2010 at 10:40 pm | | Reply

    my son in law’s brother who is the oldest is marring a gal from China. Her parents are here for the wedding… I was wondering what would be good gifts to give them and for the bride..

    my daughter is the maid of honor and her children flower girl and ring boy… it is a small wedding.. her father is the only child and she is the only child so….only her parents are here.
    Her fathers mother is still alive and so is her mom’s sister who is careing for the older grandmother though not her reletive.
    Should I send special gifts for them as well? And what would that be?

    Thanks for any help… the wedding is soon! They are here now..

  10. T Mosley
    T Mosley October 31, 2010 at 8:13 pm | | Reply


    We have adopted a couple of Chinese student at our local college that are participating in an exchange program. Every time we meet up with them the Boy and the girl always has some sort of gift for us. My wife and I are curious to know if we should be giving gifts back to them. We are learning about the Chinese culture and would love to hear some suggestions.


  11. Felicity
    Felicity January 26, 2011 at 6:54 pm | | Reply

    I want to give a gift to my grandma. She’s Chinese and I don’t know what to give her. She got watches, she doesn’t like sweet stuff. She has lots of tea and practically everything you said on the guide. Please help. Her birthday’s in about 2 days.

  12. Mary
    Mary April 6, 2011 at 1:26 am | | Reply

    A gift in China is really a important tool dose’t it?

  13. tin tin
    tin tin May 6, 2011 at 12:34 am | | Reply

    I am a Filipina, im going to china to marry my chinese boyfriend. i need some help regarding what gift to give to his family.
    Thanks for any help..

  14. Les Simmons
    Les Simmons August 31, 2011 at 8:24 am | | Reply

    My English son is getting married to a Chinese lady. What would be the right gilft to offer her parents.

  15. Sarah
    Sarah October 24, 2011 at 5:29 am | | Reply

    Hi there hope you can help.
    We are a new business and have been using a chinese supplyer for our
    Stock. Our contact in china has been so helpful, and we would not be wherewe are without him. I was wondering if it would be ok for us to send him a small gift to say thank you for xmas or chinese new year and what would be an appropriate gift? Also, we wouldnt want him to feel he has to send us something in return. Hope u can help. 🙂

  16. Rachel
    Rachel November 2, 2011 at 1:09 pm | | Reply

    Thank you for all your posts, I am going to teach ESL/EFL in China in the upcoming year and it’s been great to know what bosses and colleagues might like!

    I do still have one question though, and no one seems to know (or has posted information online), so maybe you can help me out. I would like to get gifts for my classroom of students- nothing big or elaborate, just trinkets or maybe candy, enough so everyone could have something. I’m not sure of exact ages, but I believe they will be late elementary/middle school aged. Any ideas on what I could bring? I’m from San Antonio, TX, and was thinking of bringing things that are related to the area- Alamo themed things, cascarones, fiesta items, etc.

  17. Darkman
    Darkman January 6, 2012 at 9:45 pm | | Reply

    Firstly compliments on a very well written and invaluable blog post.
    I will be visiting my to be Chinese inlaws this chinese new year (year of the dragon)
    One of the apprehensions i have is that being a dark skinned man pleasing my to be in laws seems a bit daunting, as for a fact i know that my inlaws would loved to have their daughter marry a white skinned westener.
    Apparently doing so would raise the damily status greatly.

    Anyway i have taken upon me to impress them with other qualities i possess and a careful selection of gifts.

    Here’s what ive planned

    Mother in law – bath & beauty products from crab tree and evelyne
    Father in law – video cam corder

    In laws together – Traditional chinese herbs + modern vitamins from GNC

    Sister in law – Guess watch and perfumes

    Brother in law – Cologne and leather briefcase

    Niece – Just over a year old – Toys from Mothercare

  18. Amy
    Amy January 16, 2012 at 6:56 am | | Reply

    Thank you! This was very informative!
    We just became a host family to a young Chinese college student and while the Organization sponsoring the program took care of gifts at the airport, I was pretty sure that we needed to have some gifts too. I was in Europe a couple of months ago and picked up some lovely soaps. Would those be a good gift? Also since she will be living with us for six months, what kind of timing would be appropriate for gifts?

  19. Martin
    Martin April 15, 2012 at 1:21 am | | Reply

    Hi, I have met the most beautiful person (not just physically) who is Chinese, she is from Beijing. Just being in her presence is so wonderful. I am in the middle of a divorce and had a few dates with her (she is herself 10 years divorced).

    She said at the time that I was still too raw from my own breakup and she just wanted to stay friends. That was a month ago and I have not seen her since, but there is literally not an hour that goes by that I do not think how wonderful it would be to be with her.

    In the last month I have come so far in realizing what I want and that is too have her in my life. No matter what I have to do.

    So I want to see if I can ignite a spark, I want to show her that I care, so I thought that if I was to do something that is culturally significant to her thart this might say more than just getting something cliche.

    The last few years have been hard for me, I have been financially ruined, she is well off, I want to say that I will get back to where I was despite the additional demands that will be made on me because of child support etc.., even if this is not important to her, it is to me.

    I love her because she is so warm hearted, so modest, so caring (she seems to get me more than I get myself). I am so fearful of offending her, or worse scaring her. First and foremost I want to be her friend just to be there for her

    I know that it might seem a little trite, but I cannot think of anything better than sitting with her talking, breaking bread

    Do you have any advice


  20. Birthday Gifts Delivery China
    Birthday Gifts Delivery China May 23, 2012 at 7:37 pm | | Reply

    It depends how much you want to spend and also the relatonship of the gift receipent with you. sometimes, a small gift is enough, sometimes, send somthing valubale is needed espercially is the receipent is your important customer.

  21. Nancy
    Nancy February 4, 2013 at 10:08 am | | Reply

    I am so glad to find this site. Before my question, let me give background. 9 years ago, we hosted a high school exchange student from Hong Konk in our home in WI for a year. We bonded with this young man and have remained close. We consider him our son, and he calls us mom and dad. He went to college in the US and is now living in CA with his wife [also from HK] and new baby. We just returned from a trip to meet our new ‘granddaughter’. At the airport, our son gave us an envelope and said, “Open this later.” When we did so, there was a large sum of money and a note that said, “This is a gift – expected of a good Chinese son, don’t over think it.” OK, we get that giving money to ‘older’ parents is part of tradition, although this young family needs it much more than we do.

    But here’s my question. The New Year and Jack’s birthday are coming soon, and we were going to send some money for the baby – but would this be weird since his gift occurs so close to the other events? Thanks for your wisdom on this.

  22. Kate
    Kate April 1, 2013 at 6:41 pm | | Reply

    “Why did you waste your money” is a pretty blunt response to an unwanted gift!

  23. Nicki Chen
    Nicki Chen September 20, 2013 at 11:58 am | | Reply

    A couple of days ago (before I read your excellent, informative article), my daughter’s friend sent me a quick Facebook message. Her good friend was having breast cancer surgery the following day and she was the anesthesiologist. Her friend is Chinese-American, and she wanted to give her a token of hope that was uniquely Chinese. Did I have any suggestions? It was the day before the Mid-Autumn Festival, so I suggested mooncakes. Fortunately she was able to find some at an Asian market in the American city where she lived.

    I hope that was a good suggestion. And I hope her surgery went well.

  24. Iliana
    Iliana November 8, 2013 at 9:31 am | | Reply

    I need help with gift giving also. My family and I have been living in Northern CHina for the last 5 months and still have very poor Chinese. There are a few people that work in our neighborhood to whom we would like to show our appreciation (they are always looking after our kids!) They are strangers really, but we would like to show them some American love hehe. Can you help me? They are older men and women.

  25. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth June 25, 2014 at 11:04 pm | | Reply

    I’m so glad I found this blog. I just found out that the house directly across from ours has been sold to a Chinese man. I went over and introduced myself to him a few days ago, and although his English is quite good, I’m not used to the accent and might have missed some of the things he was trying to say. Last night he came over and gifted me with a lovely bouquet of flowers, and I think he said it was because I’d made him feel welcome. How sweet! He plans to bring his wife and daughter over to America after he has fixed up the house. What I would like to know is if there are any American social practices I should avoid lest I offend our new friend. When he gave the flowers, for example, I wanted to hug him, but thought that might be too forward. Conversely, are there any Chinese social practices I can put forth to better relate to Binwei and his family? Thank you for any advice you might have to offer. I really want to do what is right.

  26. Roy
    Roy December 31, 2014 at 3:04 am | | Reply

    The most important thing I had to get accustomed to when I married into a Chinese American family close to 30 years ago is the mind frame of giving instead of receiving…

    In American culture the concept has always been “what are we going to get” for holidays and our birthdays.

    But on the day of an older Chinese individual’s Birthday, instead of them receiving from others, they in turn do the giving and money is handed out by them to family members in traditional red gift envelopes. I found that the single most significant “traditional” gift you can give on holidays such as New Years and YOUR birthday, is a gift of money in one of those envelopes. If you really want to go along with tradition, when your birthday is coming up, hand out these envelopes with $20 each inside to the immediate family members.

    Secondly, you have to always remember that older generation Chinese that came over from the mainland during, or just after war time, are very simple and practically minded. So when trying to give to them, simple is almost always better. If you’re going to give flowers, giving a plant that bears a fruit or vegetable is always significantly more appreciated than cut flowers, which are often considered undesirable and wasteful to the older generation.

    Not may people realize how tough times were for people back then when villages were over run by Japanese soldiers. I have heard many stories over the years at the dinner table of families fleeing attacking soldiers and being forced to hide and live in caves in the mountains.

    During those years, the idea of having even a simple meal that included meat was a luxury for many older Chinese adults. So actually bringing food as a gift, such as a good cut of beef, or chicken and a few pounds of freshly roasted pork from a traditional Chinese Market, is usually always welcome, as is a box filled with traditional buns such as pork buns. A bag of oranges will go over well and be considered kind gifts.

    The simple things in life are always appreciated and received gratefully. Even a few yards of nice fabric can often be considered a very nice gift to some.

    In my years in my family, I have found my Chinese family members to be the most practical and generous family orientated people I have ever known. Anyone that has, or is , fortunate enough to be accepted as part of a Chinese family, very quickly realizes that the have become part of something very special.

  27. Saskia
    Saskia July 28, 2015 at 2:18 pm | | Reply

    This made me laugh so much! Especially this part: “Deep in every Chinese supermarket is an aisle almost as fascinating as a trip to the carnival. Lamb’s placenta. Spirulina. Royal jelly. Swallow spit. Nutritional wines. All packaged in boxes too beautiful to throw away — a forest scene from a scroll painting in red and gold foil; a Qing-dynasty emperor perched silently on his throne; traditional Chinese script from a classic book.”

    I’ve started dating an Asian guy quite seriously and just going through the ritual introductions to the family as well… It’s quite nerve-wracking but very glad to have you ladies on my side! He’s also given me multiple reassurances that his family will love me, but personally I think it’s gonna take some work and patience to really gain their trust and acceptance. Thanks for the gift advice!

  28. Ann
    Ann February 16, 2016 at 3:28 am | | Reply

    Is it okay to bring hand and feet creams to my family ? They work outdoors or in factories, and quite far away from large cities. I have bought hair care products from L’Oreal Paris when I was inFrance, the bottles look so glamorous in gold !
    I have French chocolates too, maybe too sweet but in a nice box representing Champs Elysees etc
    What do you think? Thank you!

  29. Heleen Van 'tveld
    Heleen Van 'tveld July 9, 2017 at 8:36 pm | | Reply

    I have noticed that bringing good Belgian beers, chocolates, etc… always do well 😀 And I make my own jewellry, so when I see my mother in law wearing something and I know what her favorite color is I fabric it myself. They like people that can craft stuff…

    My brother in laws and nephews, everything that is something with robots and co, I’ll always ask my partner advise, cause there I’m at a loss :p

  30. Al Cucchiara
    Al Cucchiara February 12, 2018 at 12:07 am | | Reply

    As an American who has been residing in China for five gears, I thoroughly enjoyed your article on gift giving. It is so refreshing to read the replies and comments from all of the folks you have helped. I am sure that your good will is is contributing to an improved image of all nonChinese who have friends that are Chinese or who have married into a Chinese family. Having mentioned the importance of image, is it possible to edit your posted article to remove the title of the book regarding the learning of English? My limited experience at a Chinese university, Jocelyn, has taught me that many Chinese may be offended by language that implies cussing and unfortunately it might generate a negative impression of the gift giver and the country they are associated with. I really don’t beieve it adds any quality to your article anyway, so you will gain more via its omission as opposed to leaving it in.

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