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To Gift or Re-Gift: The Art of Reciprocal Exchange in China

Ski MaskLast month I received an awkward and unfitting Christmas present from a close Kunming friend. It was a huge, grey knit hat-scarf-terrorist-mask-thing that would look better on a resident of Tatooine than on me. When gift-giving holidays come around, regardless of the country or culture, it’s common to get gifts like unwanted golf shoes, ugly stuffed animals, off-color ties, or odorous perfumes that we never asked for and never will use. Just as many of us have been thinking about how to handle awkward and unwanted Christmas gifts, I too was presented with the dilemma of what to do with this hideous fashion mistake.

When living in China one always receives gifts from friends. Gifts serve the purpose of warming up the friendship and sharing mirth. In a different vein, when a person has power to make decisions, serves in a leadership capacity, or provides services for others, gifts come with a string of expected returned favors attached to them. I’ve been in leadership positions in China for more than ten years, yet I’ve have always had trouble personally consuming gifts I receive from people who expect me to do something for them.

I’m always happy to lend a hand where I can, and when appropriate I’ll accept gifts openly. When a gift comes with an expected request like assistance looking at a contract or a distressed mom seeking advice for sending her child to college abroad, I always follow through to the best of my ability. I know to never open the gift in front of the giver so he or she doesn’t lose face with my potential negative evaluation. But I never feel good using the gift. To me gifting is unnecessary – I’m happy to help without the gift, but nonetheless it is customary to accept the thing.  Upon receipt, the givers heart is settled knowing that the favor I performed for them was met with some level of equal reciprocation.

Recently, I changed jobs and had to clean out my office closest. I found six years worth of unconsumed gifts – little trinkets and key chains from points in China far and near, coffee beans from Mexico, a decorative tin of fine tea among other things. Most of these gifts were from colleagues thanking me for supporting their ideas and professional development. The gifts were a return favor for being a benevolent manager, I guess. My excavation also unearthed a pile of various liquors that I received in return for using the services of particular businesses over the years! None of the gifts was extravagant or expensive – in fact, no individual item had a value higher than twenty or thirty dollars – truth be told the pile of liquor was ample in quantity to summon Freddie Mercury incarnate to a KTV party a few weeks ago.  Seriously.

Even though I struggle with personally consuming gifts, years of living in China have taught me a golden rule of dealing with gifts: when appropriate, pass it on and re-gift.   Applying this rule, the liquor was shared with friends, and I dispensed the other gifts to my employees in a transparent and fair fashion.

On certain levels, passing a gift that was meant for you to someone else may sound cheap and disingenuous, yet in Chinese reality, re-gifting is a perfectly acceptable behavior. You may think that the giver thought long and hard about the perfect gift, or you may also believe in the adage that it’s the thought that counts, but in China it’s the action of giving the gift that counts and not the object itself.  Re-gifting an unwanted gift actually brings you more benefits. Passing the gift on is an action that requires the receiver to reciprocate for you further down the road.  So in many ways re-gifting is the gift that keeps on giving.

To illustrate, a few years ago the manager of a bus service that my organization employed called me saying that he would be arriving at my office in five minutes to give me something. My spidey-sense detected a gift was coming, but I couldn’t run away or say I was out of the office to avoid the gift (remember, I’m loathe to receive these). So I walked down to the front of our building as he pulled up in his 50 seat tour bus and waved my hands that I didn’t need any gifts today. However, he insisted and thrust a package in my face.  There was no other choice than to accept especially since a gaggle of Japanese tourists, with cameras ready, was watching the exchange unfold and not accepting the gift would have been an act of disrespect toward my friend.

Upon inspection, the package was a set of expensive Japanese knives most likely given to him by one of the tourists; I knew that if I took them home, my workmates would think I would use the knives for personal purposes (word always gets out fast about these things), so I donated the knives to the staff for use in our staff kitchen. The result was smiles all around because the office really needed a new set of knives. In another instance, a business partner who runs a tourist agency offered to give me a sizeable cash kickback after the completion of our first travel contract. I told him that I wasn’t interested and that he should plow the kickback into future trips to provide for use in better services for those who actually participated in the trips.

So back to the gift of the unsolicited funky head-wrap. Applying the logic of re-gifting that had worked so many times before, I rewrapped the hideous thing and served it up as a secret Santa gift at a party with friends on Christmas day. Unsurprisingly, the gift was received with as much gratitude as when I accepted it, but lo and behold, my friend, the receiver, actually liked it and thought it perfect for her tastes. Tomorrow she returns to her galaxy far, far away. I wonder what souvenir she’ll send me?

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