What are the common customs of gift giving in Asia?

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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The action of gift-giving in Asia is quite similar to ours, as their Western counterparts. The act of gift-giving is similar to ours in terms of what it symbolizes: the intention to appreciate an effort, to celebrate a milestone, or to commemorate a tradition in which gift-giving is expected. As far as the nature of the action, things remain quite similar and this is a result of the globalized society in which we live today where multicultural market influence had made gift-giving a universal practice.

However, the gifts that are given are what make the difference between one culture and another. This is because, although the act of gift-giving is universally understood, the symbol and intention of the object changes significance from one perspective to another.

For example, the book by Braganti and Devine The Traveler's Guide to Asian Customs and Manners: How to Dine, Tip, Bargain, Dress, Make Friends, and Conduct Business while in Asia notes that across Asia the symbolic nature of gifts changes from one country to the next, even though they share similar cultural characteristics. One of the most salient countries when it comes to gift-giving symbolism is China, where the giving of clocks is considered to be back luck since clocks basically measure your time on Earth; it may be considered as a symbol of death.

Similarly, the Western tradition of gag-gifts does not go well in Asian countries unless there is a strong, long-lasting bond of trust and communication between the two parties. This being said, gift-giving should be done with the intention of showing respect, and not with the aim of joking or causing controversy. For this reason, gifts that are too personal must at all times be avoided as well as gifts of alcohol, or anything that digs into the personal lifestyle of the recipient.

An important point made in Braganti and Devine's book is that gift giving becomes a cycle of appreciation. For instance, even if you make a gift altruistically, chances are that the recipient of your gift will "gift you back" with something bigger and better. This is not a competition, but a way to express thanks for having thought about them. Also, once you give, you may be expected to keep that same recipient on your gift-giving list as a rule. This is because, if you are the recipient of a gift, you are quite likely to receive a gift again for the same celebration from then on.

There is still more: the manner in which the gift is received is different from one Asian country to another, but it is generally expected that non-verbal communication comes into play in the form of how the gift is held (both hands, or arms wrapped around it) to show appreciation. Additionally, the refusal of your gift is a sign of humility and modesty. A Westerner that is refused a gift must insist kindly for its acceptance, and should not take it personally. It is important to remember that our concept of thankfulness and theirs do not make us better or worse, just different and unique.

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