Ask the Yangxifu: Gifts to Buy Abroad for Chinese Family and Relatives

Gifts for Chinese family, relatives and loved ones
What gifts are best bought abroad for your Chinese family?

With the holidays coming in as fast as the cold fronts, it’s time once again for an update to my gift-giving guide for your Chinese family and loved ones.

A lot of readers have asked about what gifts they should bring their Chinese relatives and/or girlfriends/boyfriends from abroad. So, for all of you wondering what to stash in your suitcase for your next trip to China, this is for you.

Chinese parents, grandparents, or any health-conscious relative

American Wisconsin Ginseng. To the Chinese, this is the ultimate ginseng — and the ultimate gift for anyone, especially those over 50, looking to boost their vitality and reduce inflammation (or “reduce fire,” as they say in Chinese). A lot of companies sell it, but I’m impartial to Prince of Peace for variety and quality (their ginseng tea bags have the best-tasting, most potent kick I’ve ever experienced with ginseng.)

Vitamin Supplements. 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.

Chinese women

Bath and Body Products. Many foreign brands of bath and body products — particularly body lotion — get rave reviews from Chinese women. Here in the US, Victoria’s Secret is a favorite, and so is Bath and Body Works (green tea and ginger, cucumber and melon, and fruit/herbal scents work great) — but they’re not the only ones worthy buying around the world.

Cosmetics and Perfume. If you’ve ever walked through the first floor of a Chinese department store — with booth after gleaming booth of mostly foreign lipsticks and foundations and whitening creams and perfume more — then you know just how much Chinese women adore foreign cosmetic brands, such as Clinique, Estee Lauder and Lancome. The only problem? A dizzying array of choices (especially if you visit one of those counters at the department stores). If you can, ask family or friends in China for suggestions. Also, check out this article for some suggestions on favorite brands — perfume and cosmetics — in China.

Jewelry. Diamonds are definitely a girl’s best friend in China, because Chinese women — like most of us around the world — love the sparkle of jewelry. But that doesn’t mean China always has the best deals. The US, for example, sells pieces with precious stones for much less than the Middle Kingdom — and that may be true for other Western countries.

Powdered Milk Formula. Have any expectant or new mothers in your Chinese family? In a post-milk-scandal China, moms and moms-to-be will spend obscene amounts of money just to buy the finest foreign powdered milk formulas for infants. Ask your family for recommendations.

Chinese men

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.

Sports Jerseys. NBA and football/soccer jerseys may be cheaper in China, but they’re usually fake and fall apart fast. If he’s a huge fan, consider buying him a jersey. My husband still treasures the Inter Milan jersey my parents brought him from Italy years ago.

Chinese children

Legos. These are more expensive in China — so if you have a special child in your Chinese family, surprise her or him with a lego set.

General gifts for Chinese family members

Chocolates. Chinese love foreign-made chocolates, whether it’s the finest Godiva or just your local hometown brand (in my case, good old Malley’s). I’m impartial to anything in a gift box, especially wrapped in red and gold. But whatever you do, don’t bring them over during the summertime (I experienced a major chocolate gift meltdown in July 2007 — you live, you learn).

Electronics. Things like digital cameras, laptops, iPads and iPhones cost WAY more in China. So if your budget allows it, consider bringing over some electronic goodness to your Chinese loved ones. Note — if you buy iPhones, make sure they’re “unlocked” so they can be used in China. Also, get a reading on their preferences on “Made in China” versus “Made in Japan” — the last thing you want is to present your Japan-loathing brother-in-law with a Toshiba laptop.

Language learning books. Foreign language learners burnt out on the usual Chinese textbooks (think Family Album USA) or hungry to learn idiomatic words and phrases, would love a good book from your country. For example, for advanced English-language learners, English as a Second F*cking Language is a great way to “master the art of swearing” (it definitely helped my husband 😉 ). Another good choice for advanced English learners is Speak English Like an American, which is chock full of dialogues teaching idiomatic language, and comes with a CD.

Name brand shoes. When I lived in Shanghai, I was shocked to find athletic shoes selling at more than twice what I’d pay in the US. So if your Chinese relatives need some Nikes or Adidas or Reeboks, get their shoe size and pick them up abroad.

Starbucks coffee. Starbucks may be in China, but not every Starbucks product is. If you have a coffee lover in your Chinese family, consider getting an exotic blend of coffee they can’t find there.

UPDATE: added in language books, chocolate

What did I miss? What gifts do you buy abroad for your Chinese family and loved ones?


Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China (or in Chinese culture)? Every Friday, I answer questions on my blog. Send me your question today.

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25 Replies to “Ask the Yangxifu: Gifts to Buy Abroad for Chinese Family and Relatives”

  1. This is a great list! Other things we’ve brought that have gone over well include gum, dark chocolate, airplane mini-sized liquor and liqeuers, peanut butter, and shoes! The latter two items were by request from family members who knew they couldn’t find the same quality (for the price) in China, so we happily obliged.

  2. Coming from a family of medical professionals who stressed the benefits of breastfeeding, it’ s sad that China’s gone milk powder crazy. I remember when I was working as the manager of international housing in Illinois, the grandparents’ first English word when they arrived there was always “formula”. Always. It was depressing.

  3. Hello

    So I have looked for a present for my guy, I wanted to get something little, perhaps lucky, appropriate for the little time we have known eachother.

    And the thing I found was a beautiful box of yin yang incense holder with incense in beautiful flower candles.

    I can’t figure out if this is auspicious or not? On one hand fire burning can be a good thing (but on the other hand it will always burn out) and i most deffinetly do not want our relationship to burn out…

    So are there any cultural myths about candles and incense for gifts?

    I really don’t want to look like I am trying too hard, and plus I had trouble as it is getting him to accept a melon, let alone anything else. haha I was going to accompany this little gifts set with chocolate, as there is so little in China! Although, I don’t want to be too suggestive, as I believe that he still has alot of work left to woo me! (even though I am his forever anyway, but he doesn’t have to know that!) hehe

    LOoking forward to your feedback.

    Many thanks,

    1. @Susan, thanks so much for the comment, and the suggestions! Great ideas, especially the food, if you happen to know what your family likes.

      @Li Lan, thanks for sharing. I can’t agree with you more — it’s such a travesty that formula is seen as a superior alternative to breastfeeding for many Chinese.

      @Jin Feng, thanks for the question. I’m not sure about candles, though candles are not usually given as gifts. I would, however, avoid incense — it is highly associated with ancestor worship (people usually burn it before the graves of their deceased relatives) and making offerings at Buddhist temples.

      Chocolate actually sounds like a much better gift — Chinese are especially fond of foreign chocolates. I normally don’t carry them over b/c I visit in the summer, and the oppressive heat makes it pretty much impossible to get it there without melting. But sending them, and especially this time of year, would be fine. Maybe you can get him something fancy or special, preferably with a gift box (always a nice touch for gifts to the Chinese).

  4. Every time when my readers ask about gifts for future Chinese in-laws, I refer them to your gifts-giving guide.
    Congratulations with the new version: Jocelyn’s Giftsgiving Guide 2.0 !

  5. Excellent list as always, Jocelyn! I’m glad you reminded people to check what country an item was made in – some people really do not want anything made in Japan. And I’ve gotten some strange looks when I give people in China a gift that was made in China, exported to the U.S., and then I brought it back to China. But often that item can’t be bought in China. Crazy.

    We give away lots of chocolates here in China. They go over well with almost anyone, any age.

    1. @Crystal, thanks for the comment! I’m glad you find it so useful. 🙂

      @Melanie, thanks for sharing! You know, I really should add chocolate to the list, even though I had that disastrous melt-down (literally, melted chocolate everywhere) a few summers ago. I’ll just add a caveat — do not take chocolate over in the summertime! 😉

  6. Name brand bags or clothes. I know lots of people have the trip to USA will carry back bags and clothes. I was told a LEE Jean was sold much higher, double or tripple higer in China.

    1. @adam, those are great ideas. I will try to update this post ASAP to add them in.

      @American Family, they do have digital photo frames in China — but on the other hand, so are a lot of electronics. The difference usually is that the quality is better, and for less, over here. I did a quick and dirty search in Chinese, and the lowest price I saw was 299 RMB (about $45) for an 8X6 inch frame from Aigo (a Chinese brand) and they went on up from there. I would say, if you can get something high quality for a really good price, they would appreciate it.

      As for plugs, most of the brands are over in China, which means the plugs would be available. Do you have friends in China who could buy you a plug for the same kind of netbook? Otherwise, if you’re not sure, you can usually get a universal adapter of some kind. I have an Apple, for example, and it came w/ a universal power adapter that I can take and plug in pretty much anywhere — there should be similar options available for netbooks. Places like Radio Shack are a good place to start to get an idea of what product you might need — then google it and see if you can find a better price online.

  7. I have a couple questions about electronics:
    1) Are digital picture frames widely available in China? We are giving someone a digital camera and it seems like a nice gift for his wife, but I am afraid that they are available everywhere like they are here.

    2) How do you deal with plugs? We are bringing a netbook as a gift and it has a US plug. Do I need to buy an adapter here or is that something that is widely available in China?\

    I have spent a crazy amount of time stressing over gifts, so this post is a huge help!

  8. Thanks for the advice! This gift-buying stress is sucking some of the fun out of my trip-planning, but I am almost done I think. Now I just have to figure out how to cram all that stuff into my suitcase.

  9. These are great gift ideas. You are exactly right about the vitamin supplements. I am an independent distributor of the American nutritional supplements, Shaklee. We recently started distributing in China and I have so much business there. They love the access to the American brand.

  10. Thank you for this post! So relevant to what I am going through. Leave in a week to visit my Chinese boyfriend, along with friends and their families. I am excited about being able to share my Christmas tradition with all my friends. I am thinking of buying Crown Royal and pot of gold chocolates for my good friends families. Curious though, If I bring them these things from Canada will they feel inclined to have to buy something for me?? I really don’t want to put that pressure on them, just want them to enjoy.

    I can’t hardly believe about the formula??!! My best friends sister JUST had a baby boy.. should I grab some formula before I head over there?? Really??

  11. My family hosted a Chinese exchange student who has returned home. I would like to send some gifts to his father, mother and grandmother but I don’t know anything about them except that they are his family! I don’t know if they would like coffee, or lotions or alcohol. I know the mother is a teacher and the father is a mangager and a maufacturing plant. But that is all I know. We sent him home with books from our area and sports wear for our local high schoool and college teams. Should I send the ginsing and lotion? Thanks.

  12. We stumbled over here from a different web page and thought I may as well check things out. I like what I see so now i am following you. Look forward to going over your web page repeatedly.

  13. Excellent list! Bookmarked. (I’ll be coming back to this one for sure. 🙂 Now that I’m back working in America much of the year I need to think about gifts going TO China, not just FROM China.

  14. I will be traveling with a Tour group and making a home visit but I don’t know anything about the family. It is summer so no chocolate. Can you make some suggestions?

  15. I have a classmate who recently moved from China. He’s a guy and I think I’m his first friend in Canada here. Would it be alright to buy him a black pair of leather gloves? He won’t wear the ones his dad bought him (his dad’s white, or maybe they’re too bulky to be stylish) I really want to give them to him, because it’s winter now and he will get a nasty shock if he doesn’t start dressing for the weather!

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