Non-epiphany: Giving and receiving.

I used to think that American etiquette was a hassle. All the formalities and mannerisms inherent in every interaction, the rule book to which I never had access to , or even worse, was unwritten. It all seemed so fake and artificial.

But as I’m unpeeling my Asian upbringing, I realize how ridiculous Chinese customs must seem to an outsider. (Non-epiphany: Other people are different from me!!! And those differences matter!!! I know, it’s shocking.) So, one layer at a time, I’m going to try revealing specific cultural . Starting with giving and receiving gifts.

Gift giving

In American culture, gifts tend to be more personalized and thoughtful. If YA fiction is a reliable source of culture, people would spend weeks thinking up/preparing gifts for people (scrapbooks seemed to be really common), while I would almost always just take something I had at home when giving a gift myself. Sure, I thought about whether the recipient would like it, but I rarely would walk into a store with the sole intention of buying a gift.

I never had the experience of buying gifts for people in my family, and my birthday gifts from my parents were more symbolic in nature (sometimes even just repackaging clothes that were already in my closet) and have becoming a running joke of sorts.

Every time I brought home a gift from someone, after the obligatory “What is it?”, the first thing I hear from my parents is,”How are we going to return this gift?” Even if I received a gift on my birthday, I was expected to give a “thank you” gift. It became a social obligation. For the same reason, I was taught not to give gifts “just because” because it would create a similar burden for the recipient.

Gifts typically aren’t opened in front of their givers in Chinese culture. I first witnessed this at birthday parties in elementary school. My white classmates would always open their gifts while the cake was being eaten during the party, while with Chinese people, the gifts would always remain unopened.

Giving a good gift requires a degree of authenticity and vulnerability that ‘s still uncomfortable for me growing up in a stoic Asian family. I am twitching thinking about it. And accepting a good gift requires acknowledging that sometime took the time and thought of me enough to get me something. It’s a very personal experience.

Accepting gifts

Giving gifts is half of the equation. Accepting them is another story.

This is how the scene usually plays out at Asian parties.

One of the families decides to leave and calls their kids over. As everyone is putting their shoes and coats on, the host appears with a bag of some sorts. Maybe it’s a gift, maybe it’s some leftovers. The parents ardently refuse and prepare to go out the door. The host tries handing the kids the bag. The kids follow the example of the parents and refuse.

The entire family is heading out to the car. The host follows. The family enters the car. The host tries to throw in the bag in the car while one the doors is open. They fail. The host taps on the window. Still no luck.

And somehow, the family ends up with the gift.

Even if I secretly liked something that someone gave me, I had to pretend to reject it and refuse to take it until after a ridiculous amount of coaxing by some adult. And if it was something I didn’t like, 1) it wouldn’t be polite to say so, 2) the gift giver wouldn’t have believed me.

With some relief, I found t outhat this isn’t unique to Chinese culture. This episode of This American Life about gift giving discusses the custom of tarof in Iran:

Nazanin Rafsanjani: OK, so it’s called tarof. And it’s basically this social custom of never saying what you want and offering things to people that you may or may not really want to give them. What happens, like, millions of times a day in Iran, probably is that you– you know, you go to someone’s house and they say, “Are you hungry? What can I get you? Do you want some tea? Do you want some fruit? Cookies?” And you say, “No, no, no. I’m just here, I just want to see you. I’m not here for any of that stuff. I’m not hungry. I don’t want any tea.”

And they’re like, “No, you have to have some tea. You have to have some fruit. Just one orange. Just have an orange. Have an orange and an apple.” So you may or may not want the tea, you may really want the tea. They may be on their way out the door and not expecting you, and not want you at all to stay for tea or fruit or anything, but it doesn’t matter. They’ve come out of their kitchen with a giant bowl of fruit, which every Iranian has. And you’re like, “No, no, no, I don’t want anything. I’m just here to talk for a second. Please, please, please. No, no.” And there may be some physical altercation where they’re like grabbing your hands as you try to put fruit on their plate. And what I see happen a lot is that the person who the food and tea is being forced on will take a sip of the tea, or peel the orange and eat a slice and leave the rest on their plate.

Because if you eat the orange, then they have to start tarofing again. You know what I mean? If you finish the orange or drink the tea, they’re not going to just let your plate be empty.

It surprises me to find out that a simple “thank you” is enough most of the time. Someone wants to give me something, and I’m supposed to…take it? What kind of ingrate does that make me? (It took me a while before I realized that refusing a gift was probably just as, if not more, impolite.)

Accepting compliments

As with gifts, I’ve never learned to accept a compliment at face value for many of the same reasons. I’s much easier to refuse someone’s words than refuse something physical.

It’s like everyone on Facebook commenting “omg you’re so prettyyyyy” and then the other person responding “omg no i’m not you’re prettierrrrr”


I’ve started trying to predict when someone is about to compliment me so I can prepare an appropriate response. (you call it narcissistic, I call it a good defense mechanism) But if I’m caught off guard, my instinct is still to sputter out a self-deprecating remark or try to push the gift away. And if I predict incorrectly, I end up saying “thank you” at an entirely wrong time.

Maybe when I’m at Asian parties, I’ll have to revert back to my defense mechanisms. But for the rest of the world, I’ll be trying to make my “thank you”s as sincere as possible.

Side note: I haven’t known anyone going through the grieving process lately, but his advice to not just say “Let me know if want to talk” and physically do something, when someone is suffering has stuck to me. Again, vulnerability.

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