Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Foochow Gift Giving in the 50's and 60's

In Sibu, where I grew up,as in any where in the world, gifts were often given to express gratitude or friendship or hospitality. It was and still is a common courtesy observed in many cultures.

However, in the western Christian world especially, and in a business setting, gift giving is generally frowned upon as a suggestion of bribery. Though this is not always the case, it's important to be proper and properly sensitive when choosing to give a gift in a business context.

"For thousands of years, Chinese people have believed that courtesy demands reciprocity, meaning that well-mannered people return favors and kindness. Whenever someone receives a present, treat or invitation from a friend, they will try to offer one back on a suitable occasion. This customary reciprocity is considered necessary to build friendship between people. "

Elsewhere I have written that many Foochow families did keep an account book of who gave how much for weddings, birthdays and funerals. So whenever my mother was invited to a wedding, she would take out her little note book and check what the host had given to her, for example, my wedding. And she would reciprocate. Even when she had to attend a funeral, she would take out my father's funeral account book and check against the names. She would then wrap up the "white gold" or gift of money she would give to the bereaved family. If she was in a generous mood, or she had a great deal of respect for the family, she would give more. In later years,when all of us were earning well and her properties have become very valueable, she was generous indeed towards her less well off relatives. She gave very generously.

Other suitable occasions to give gifts included important milestone birthdays like the 70th , 80th, 90th and 100th birthdays or wedding days, or for a special holidays like Christmas or a special party held in honour of a person who had been given a title by the Government. Often gifts were also given as a way of saying thank you.

The Foochows were particularly fond of giving a gift of money to someone who was embarking on a new course of study. When I went to the university, my mother recorded all the gifts of money I received from my uncles, aunties, cousins and other relatives. I was quite special to them because I was not as fortunate as others as my father had passed away when I was just 16 and so relatives were very considerate and they decided to help out by giving me their angpows. This was also one way of telling my mother how much they had appreciated her as a relative.

Others also gave chickens as gifts so that we could have a few good meals before I left for university.

But today many changes have come about. People have become more affluent. Many of the customs have disappeared and in fact many of my relatives have decided to reduce some of their gift giving for economic reasons. Some have said that they wanted to have very simplistic lives.

However, here are some general gift giving tips in a Chinese way:

1. Give gifts to people you visit, as a way to thank them for inviting you.

2. When giving a "visiting" gift, find something the whole family can use. For example, give food or tea. Or, give something that is important in your home country or community. For example, you might give wild rice from Minnesota or a framed photo of your family.

3. In Sibu as well as in China today, tradition still dictates that the recipient not appear greedy. Therefore, he or she will often decline a gift two or three times before accepting. If you’re the giver, offer again until it is accepted after the third time. At the same time, especially in business, your gift may be absolutely refused, so don’t press beyond several refusals.

4. Remember you must not be offended if the person does not open the gift in front of you. The traditional Foochows do not usually open a gift in front of the giver. It might embarrass them. They will open it later, then call or write to thank the person for the gift if they are western educated. But usually the genuine and sincere Foochows will say their thank yous profusely.

5. To give a business gift, always remember to wrap the gift well. Do not leave the gift in the store's bag. Use colored ribbons to wrap a gift using these colors:

Red for general and happy occasions
Gold and silver for wedding gifts

6. I used to find that my best relatives would give the same kind of gifts or the same value of gifts. The recipients are just as human as the next person. So comparisons would be made and talk would surface and hurts would be caused. I remember one of my relatives was very good in giving gifts to all her sisters in law. She gave them exactly the same gift of a good purse bought in England. So when the sisters in law went to a party, they displayed their new purse with pride and every one was beaming. Her diplomacy was excellent.

(more later)

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