As a married couple, my wife and I find ourselves trying to find the balance between two cultures, Chinese and Japanese. There are definite cultural differences. Gift-giving is one of them.

Recently we were invited to two wedding receptions. My wife Lisa always goes to great lengths to decide what gift to give. She ponders and then presents several choices for which I am asked for input. It’s always a struggle for me because my Chinese side says one thing but I want to honor Lisa’s wishes.

Gift-giving in Japan, I believe, is a very important ritual. Giving the right gift takes a lot of thought. Even how the gift is wrapped is a factor in the gift-giving process.

I remember visiting Lisa’s grandmother in Little Tokyo Towers in Los Angeles. She apologized, saying she was sorry she didn’t have anything to give us.

One of the five love languages is “gift-giving.” My mother-in-law Deana showed us her love on holidays and special occasions. She always got us the nicest presents and her grandkids received the latest and coolest toys. We never left the house on a visit without something from her.

When we got married, the hot gift of the 1981 wedding season was a microwave. We received three from her side of the family. We also received a home entertainment system. I thought we had hit the jackpot! The gifts from the Chinese side of the family were a little more modest.

Chinese have a different attitude toward gift-giving. I call it keeping score! Chinese also believe in gift-giving but with equal value. They will remember what you gave their kids for a wedding and respond with equal value.

You never visit a house during Chinese New Year without bringing something. But unlike my Japanese relatives, sometimes there is what we call regifting. That tin of butter cookies from Costco may be making a second round. The sack of oranges might be making the third round.

This is not to say Chinese people are cheap, more like frugal. Why waste something you may not use, so donate it to a friend or relative?

With this observation I hope I am not offending my Chinese brothers and sisters!

Chinese are generous when it comes to picking up checks at restaurants. If you eat at a Chinese restaurant with regularity you might see people fighting for the check. By the way, this is also true for Japanese people!

For Chinese, food seems to be part of the love language of gift-giving. Attend any baby party or wedding — no expense is spared for the best menu. The attendees will often comment on the dishes served.

To a certain extent it is payback for the baby parties and wedding banquets you have been invited to but also to share the wealth with your family and friends.

My dad would always say you can save on things like clothes, shoes, or cars but don’t skimp on food.

So what’s the point? Well, even though we are all Asians, there are differences within cultures. Part of being in  a “mixed marriage” is negotiating those differences and adjusting our attitudes.


Bill Yee is a retired Alhambra High School history teacher. He can be reached at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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