It's not just the gift, but the thought behind it

A man playing the role of the God of Fortunes gives out 'red envelopes' to visitors in Hong Kong, on Feb 23, the fifth day of the Chinese Lunar New Year.

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.

There is another explanation too-shoe, pronounced "xie", is a homonym for "evil" in Mandarin.

"Navigating the cultural minefield can be difficult for expats. One culture's prized gift can be another's cause for grave offence," said Nancy Mitchell, an established protocol and etiquette consultant at George Washington University.

Having lived in China for more than three decades, Noyan Rona, the chief representative of the Shanghai office of Turkish Garanti Bank, is fully aware of the to-dos and not-to-dos in gift giving.

"For me, it is not unacceptable. It's part of the culture that I respect and I try to learn from it. We are in a position where we have to learn. When you find out the reason, in most cases, it makes sense," said Rona, who was named an honorary citizen of Shanghai in 2012 by the city government for his contribution to the socio-economic development of the metropolis.

Rona's understanding on gift-presenting tips in China might come in handy for those looking for a suitable present.

"If you give money (for a newly wedded couple), you should keep up with the market price. If somebody gives 1,000 yuan (S$217), you shouldn't just give 100 yuan."

"The Chinese care about the appearance of the gift as well. They always appreciate good packaging and limited editions," he said.

Still, Rona has one particular complaint. The Chinese won't open gifts in front of the givers, whereas people in the West usually open gifts to express their gratitude face-to-face. This can lead to misunderstandings.

"It feels like they don't care or they don't like it," he said.

Ji Jiejing, a researcher of ancient Chinese civilization with the museum of the Imperial College, or Guozijian, said this stems from the promotion of humility and restraint in Chinese culture.

"Opening a gift immediately upon receiving it used to be considered as impolite. But now, the rules are merging with Western ways and some taboos are fading," Ji said.

But, Ji said, generally speaking the rule to reciprocate a gift with another present of similar value is recommended.

"In China, courtesy demands reciprocity. If you don't return the gift with another equivalent item, it may be considered you are in debt to the presenter."

However, some things are constant universally. Items inaccessible in China, likewise in the West, such as handicraft from givers' native countries are always welcomed. In business relations, foreign cigarettes, fine whiskey and quality wines are relatively safe gifts.

"Gift-giving is just one small part of Chinese culture that Westerners need to learn about. You can't learn everything in a day-you have to experience it to really learn the customs-but at least make an effort," said Dreyer.

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