Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

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I'll be arriving in Harbin on January 27, about a week before the beginning of the Spring Festival, the nation's major "gift-giving" holiday, as it were, and the holiday that stops the world the way Christmas stops it here. This has put me in mind of the differences I've observed in gift-giving, American-style and gift giving among my Chinese friends and acquaintances. When I go, I want to take gifts that my friends will value and that will be appropriate for the Chinese gift-giving occasions. But there's a lot to learn about this.

For one thing, those envelopes mystify me. I know that during the Spring Festival older relatives give money in them to younger ones, especially children, but they can be given to others as well (although I don't know the conventions that govern that practice). I don't know when the younger generation becomes the older. The other major red-envelope event, as far as I can tell, is a wedding. There, too, the bride and groom receive red envelopes containing cash. At some point during the wedding reception, you take your envelope to a person who records your name and the amount you gave. For myself, I just can't shake the feeling that somehow it's crass to give money on those occasions, and it's even more crass to count it when it comes in. (For the practice of having someone assigned to count it in a public place, I have no words.) I don't know what other red-envelope events there are, but I suspect that graduation and the birth of a child might be some. (Not birthdays. My sense is that birthdays are celebrated much as they always have been - with a meal of noodles, for long life.)

The Chinese also give gifts of a smaller, more generic nature. I'm not sure how this works within China, but every visiting scholar that I've met has come to the U.S. armed with a large number of little tchotchkes - usually something that looks a bit like something we'd dangle from a rearview mirror, made of exquisite bright red cord and holding in its center some symbol, such as Fu (for happiness and health and all good things in life) or a miniature face mask from the Beijing opera, or a piece of jade fashioned to look like an ancient Chinese coin, or perhaps just a knotted design. These gifts could be given to anyone who does them a kindness, such as inviting them over for a meal. Then there are slightly more expensive versions of these, for special friends. My fellow teachers and I have received a number of these over the years, and they've ranged from fans to pencil holders bearing the school's symbols to pen and pencil sets and so forth.

Then there are the items that my Chinese friends have bought in America to take back to their friends in China. Let's just say that since I've been hanging out with visiting scholars, I've spent more time at the outlet malls than I probably have in the preceding past quarter-century. The #1 most popular gift for women, hands down, is skin care products. Probably a close second would be vitamins, which are cheaper and reputedly of higher quality here than at home. And then, for close friends and family, it's name-brand clothing such as Polo, North Face, Coach, and so on. I'm certainly not going to buy people clothing, and skin care products strike me as both too generic (everyone gives them) and too specific (how do I know your taste?).

What seems to be missing from this equation is the kind of gift that I, as a Westerner, value a great deal: The well-chosen object that has been picked with one specific person in mind. I love to give thoughtful gifts; it truly is the best part of the Christmas season, as far as I'm concerned. Above everything, I value clever. And over the years, I've gotten dozens of gifts like that (knitting needles, books and CDs that I'd never heard of but that were perfect for me, a handmade Rudolf pin), as I'm sure you, Faithful Reader, have, too. It's not that these are missing from the Chinese landscape entirely - I’ve gotten beautiful calligraphy, for instance- but they seem to be comparatively rare, whereas in my gift-giving lexicon, they're the staple.

So I've had a quandary trying to decide what gifts to take with me. I'd like to be able to follow the pattern my friends follow here, and give small things to people on lots of occasions. I'd also like to follow my own preference, and give things that are unique or clever. But the things I'd like to take - MSU or UM paraphernalia, say, or items from the Michigania store – are expensive. I could go even smaller and settle on pencils or something, but that's downright cheap. For this situation, I'm going to personalize by branching out to other handmade crafts - bookmarks with my pictures from Snapfish, some experiments with polymer clay and Bic pens - rounded out by chocolate bars.

For my close friends, I still want the well-chosen, one-of-a-kind items. I had this fantasy that I would knit for people, and my closest friends will get something out of wool, even if it's just a hat. Others might get a book. The problem, I'm coming to realize, is that after three years, I've met a lot of people who fall into this category. So, yes, I've gotten about 10 lbs of skin-care products for the people to whom I want to give more than a bookmark, less than a scarf . . .

So I'm thinking about this high-context culture and the intricate web of relationships, remembering that my friends are friends with people in middle and high school. I wonder how gift-giving practices are affected by the sheer number of people to whom your average Chinese person might give a gift. I also wonder how gift-giving is managed in a place where there isn't a lot of money to buy presents. Some of my friends only have to reach back a generation or maybe to their own childhoods to touch real, abject poverty. How does that experience color the practice of giving gifts?

As I said, lots to learn. Just the problem I love to have.

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