The Ritual of Receiving Gifts

By Dr. Julia Wai-Yin So (

The ritual of receiving gift in the United States generally goes like this: when we receive a gift, we thank the gift-giver, ask permission to open it, open it, and thank the giver again.  This is not the case in other cultures, especially for foreign-born Chinese.  Read the following situation and let me know what you think?

Your friend threw a birthday party for his father’s 71st birthday.  While your friend is a native-born Chinese American, his father is from Guangzhou, the People’s Republic of China.  You purchased a very exquisite clock as present.  Upon arrival, you congratulated your friend’s father and hand him the gift.  He thanked you and put the gift aside.  You were puzzled because neither did he ask to open it, nor opened it right away.   The celebration was extremely festive with dragon dance and lots of singing and toasting.  Yet there was no “gift-opening” in the program.   As the party ended, you wondered to yourself, “Well, maybe the father has forgotten about the presents.”

Lots to think about…

First of all, for the gift-giver, never give a clock or a watch to a Chinese. It conveys a death wish to the receiver as the words “giving a clock” and “attending a funeral” are homonyms.

Secondly, if you are the receiver, be sure to decline the gift initially. Do not just say, “Thank you and take the gift.” You are expected to decline the gift and the gift-giver is expected to insist on giving you the gift. This back-and-forth interaction is a ritual. Finally, when you do accept the gift, you are to accept the gift with numerous expressions of “thank you,” but you do not open the present in front of the gift-giver. It is considered rude and impolite. Be extra sensitive if you are dating the daughter or son of a Korean or Chinese who are immigrants. They may not be upset with you if you committed a faux pas, but you will score a brownie point if you understand their cultural practices.

Finally, if you receive an important gift when you are in China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, it is a tradition that you reciprocate the gift with a “red envelope” to the messenger or gift-giver. Be sure to insert a small amount of money in the envelope! The amount would depend on the relationship and the significance of the gift (which means you have to open the gift in private).