My “hard-to-buy-for” Chinese father-in-law

(photo by Geoffrey Gilmour-Taylor via

That hard-to-buy-for person? To my parents, that could have been John’s father — given the conversation we had yesterday about what to give him for the holidays.

“Wouldn’t he like, say, one of those pocket knives?” my dad asked. “Or a letter opener? Or even a tool kit?”

But John shook his head “no” at every suggestion, leaving my dad surprised and even laughing. After all, we essentially vetoed what he considered the top three must-have gifts for the average American guy his age.

While John’s dad was only a few years younger than my dad, he was a world away when it came to interests and needs. Unlike my dad, John’s dad wasn’t one of these handyman types who liked tinkering around the house, and would never have imagined that anyone needed a special tool to do something as simple as opening a letter. He cultivates bonsai in the garden, dabbles in painting and calligraphy, pens his own articles and self-published books, and reads the newspaper from front to back everyday. And while I’m sure some American men out there must share his passions, I’ve yet to meet him.

It’s no wonder, then, that cross-cultural gift-giving challenges so many of us — enough to keep a steady stream of “what should I buy him/her in China” e-mails flowing into my inbox.

In the end, my parents settled on an engraved pen — sure to please a certain “cultured” retiree in Zhejiang with a penchant for writing.

P.S.: Have a hard-to-buy-for person in China on your list? Check out my gift guides.

14 Replies to “My “hard-to-buy-for” Chinese father-in-law”

  1. When I went to China to meet my parents in law I brought olives and raw meet (that we have raw for breakfast or dinner in Spain), and they were more than shocked when they saw that. So I’d recommend not to give any kind of food as a present.

    I’ve seen that Chinese tend to consider sparkling whatever (dresses, shoes, decoration,…) as nicer than regular ones. So anything comparable to a disco ball would be ok. But for the case that is explained in this post, I’d rather say that any plain and sober token would be better.

  2. What is it with parents and letter openers… my Mum and Dad think they are the greatest gift of all. They could still get your father-in-law one and he can have it on display as a weird memento 😀

    It can be difficult to buy presents for people you know well never mind someone from the other side of the world. I have to make notes throughout the year when I think of an idea for birthdays, Christmas etc.

  3. “the top three must-have gifts for the average American guy his age”

    @Jocelyn, I wonder what the top three must-haves are. Thanks 😀

  4. I remember first meeting my in-laws and whenever I asked my husband what should I get them he responded with very clever ‘I don’t know’. Literally every single time. I also had to buy a gift for my sis in law. That was pain in the… butthole. In the end I got my dad in law a limited Euro2012 edition Polish Vodka, for mother in law I got a set of silver-amber bracelet and neckless (she later wore it on our wedding) – it was good because amber is not only ‘very Polish’ thing but also amber has some ‘magical’ work in Chinese medicine, also I got her German chocolates. For sis I got a bag with ‘modern-traditional’ Polish pattern, some sweets and phone charms with ‘Polish-English’ greetings – it was similar to this thing but with bit different pattern and it was black, I think they liked it. I hope! 🙂

  5. Thank you all for the comments — it’s great to hear I’m not the only one who faced these challenges!

    @Luc, I was referring to what my dad considered the top three must haves for an average American guy — namely, a pocket knife, a tool kit, a letter opener. But keep in mind he’s in his 60s and retired, so these gifts may not necessarily work for every guy!

  6. My husband bought his father a watch when we were in Europe, but that was a rather expensive gift (the price wasn’t expensive for a watch, but it was expensive for a gift). He didn’t tell his father the price, otherwise he would have told us to give it back immediately, I guess.

    I always think it’s harder to buy gifts for my father than for my mother, but for my husband it’s the other way around. When we were in Europe there were so many things he wanted to get for his dad, but he found it really hard to find something for his mum. One other gift he bought for his dad was a wooden walking stick (it’s rather useful for his dad, but it might be taken as an offense if the person doesn’t need it).

  7. Buying gifts is hard..I just wish there was no need of gifts, honestly!

    You know what was very successfull that my dad brought to China last time? cuban cigars (the ones that are big). Tony’s dad, brother in law, father of the brother in law, ,…they were all so interested in learning how to cut them, how to smoke them, how to stop them and how to storage them…! I was so surprised.

    He also brought some Spanish raw and the dad was eating it and loving it, till he asked how to cook it, we explained the whole process with salt, and he said…: No oil, no cooked! then told everyone to stop eating it but the rest just laughed and said..its a different procedure….! 😉

    If you bring some chinese food he will directly ask: how much? And whatever you say he will always say: this young people, too expensive! i pay X!

    @ China Elevator Stories,
    My father bought a nice watch for Tony for our wedding, as a personal gift for him. During the wedding banquet a friend of Tony wanted to take something personal from him and keep it till we finish a game. When he was taking the watch frim his wrist, the watch didn’t last too long in his friend’s hand, it ended up on the floor with the whole glass broken, a brand new watch, 2h old, quite expensive. And the friend was just laughing till he saw my dad’s face almost crying and saw me telling to him: this watch is a gift from my father to tony you MUST take care!
    The face of my dad was..Oh my..that watch lasted 2h..then I took it and fixed it one week after but not the same,…
    Some people should never ever have access to watches 🙂

  8. Hi Joss, How ’bout sunscreen? Most Chinese villagers have never heard of such a thing and they’re the ones out in the sun the most. By the time they’re your fil’s age, if they haven’t died from skin cancer, their skin is leathery looking. I say, it’s never too late. You could start him on a good habit. And your mil will appreciate it too. She will also love a good moisturizer. Chinese ladies in general love foreign-brand skin care products. They don’t trust the Chinese brands for safety and quality. Anyway, not sentiment gift ideas, but practical — and the Chinese, as you know, show love in very practical ways. Hope this helps!

  9. Hard to buy people in my life include my parents. My mom only wants everyone to be happy and isn’t a gift person. She doesn’t like receiving gifts. My dad is into technology and sometimes it feels as if I don’t know what he’d want.

  10. Just wanted to post a few things regarding gift giving etiquette in most Asian cultures.

    Giving sharp objects that are used to cut or slice things suggests that you want to sever a friendship or relationship. So that would apply to the ‘top three gifts for an average American guy’ you mentioned earlier. This applies to kitchen knives, etc.

    Clocks and watches should also be avoided as it represents that time is running out and could be applied to relationships or life itself.

    Any gift in sets of 4 is representative of death, as the pronunciation of the number 4 in Chinese closely resembles the pronunciation of the word death. Just like how the number 13 is taboo or superstitious in the United States, the same for the number 4 in Chinese culture.

    Another play on words, shoes sounds like breaking up, so giving shoes as a gift means you are intending to sever a relationship and part ways.

    Any green hat means you are cheating on your significant other or spouse, so better to pick a different color if you are going to give a hat as a gift. Also anything black or white is reminiscent of funerals, so avoid those colors if possible.

    Flowers are synonymous with funerals and death, so don’t get these. Traditional asians also don’t find them practical as they die and wither away quickly. A potted plant would be a better alternative.

    Some good gifts I’ve found to be appreciated are supplement/pills for health, fish oils, pills for your hair/nail/skin, supplements for your joints. They’re super into health. Chinese snacks are also good. Smoked salmon. Black truffle mustard. Something bitter or sour. Ginseng tea. Good skin lotion/sunscreen. Golden melons. Jewelry or bags. Home cooked meals. Meals together are very important. Desserts that aren’t too sweet. Lady M cakes, matcha crepe is good. Best of luck!

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