When Mark Levine, an English-language instructor at Beijing's Minzu University of China, was first invited to attend a Chinese colleague's wedding in Jiangsu province in 2006, his second year in China, the California native was ready to present a small decorative gift for the new couple as he used to do in the United States.
However, his gesture suddenly seemed inappropriate as he realised the Chinese at the ceremony had red envelopes filled with cash to present rather than a packed gift.
"It's a little bit embarrassing when you present something that people didn't expect to receive on certain occasions," Levine, who used to be a social worker in the US, told China Daily recently.
"In the US, people do that (give cash) as well but only for close relatives. People would normally give things as presents, while here in China red envelopes are more commonly welcomed."
It was the first time the 66-year-old discovered the etiquette－including taboos－in gift giving. He was not alone, as the recent controversy following a British minister's visit to Taipei, Taiwan, revealed.
British Minister of State for Transport Baroness Susan Kramer presented a watch in January to Ko Wen-je, the mayor of Taipei, when she visited the city, inadvertently sparking headlines as she broke a long-held taboo in Chinese culture.
A clock or watch, or zhong in Mandarin, signifies "the end" in Chinese, and many associate it with death. Therefore, giving someone, especially an elder, a clock or watch implies "your time is up".
Kramer later apologised for the gaffe, but Ko also came under fire for his "rude" response as he told reporters that he had no use for the watch and would sell it for cash.
However, some expats in China, such as Mark Dreyer, stand by Ko in this particular debate.
"When I heard about the story, I felt embarrassed," said Dreyer, a British citizen who has lived and worked in China since 2007.
"After all, 'don't give clocks or watches to your hosts' is on page 1 of most China travel guides. That said, the culture of gift-giving is not nearly so big back home as it is here, the worse thing is the lack of respect shown by the British for not even reading about the customs beforehand."
As Spring Festival approaches, the peak gift-giving season in China, it's necessary for newcomers to learn about and bear those taboos in mind, said Zhang Bo, deputy secretary-general of the China Folklore Society.
"It's no surprise to see such embarrassments happen now and then due to the various implications contained by gifts in different cultures," Zhang, also a professor in folk custom at Beijing Union University, told China Daily on Wednesday.
Because of the culture and Mandarin's homophone, where similar words can have different meanings, the process of gift selection is more elaborate in China than in the West with the same items signifying different meanings in China and abroad.
For example, giving shoes to friends is totally acceptable in the West, whereas in China it implies that the presenter wants the recipient to walk away, or disappear.