As I head off to Shanghai, I’m thinking I’m really lucky I’ve been to China before.
In June last year, I made my first trip to Mainland China teaching at the incredible Tsinghua University English Summer Camp (TUESC) and then tentatively backpacking around the East of the country afterwards. And as such, when I leave my friends behind in Belfast, I have a favour to ask my Dad:
“Please can I have lots of individually packaged Twinings teabags.”
Whatever for you ask?
Well, it’s not to quench my ‘wee cuppa tea’ addiction, which, admittedly, I do have.
They’re pre-prepared presents. Asian-style.
I was baffled in Taiwan two years ago, to receive a stream of little mechanical pencils, cute rubbers, juice boxes, sweets, individually wrapped biscuits and even clothes from fellow students and new friends. And just two years later, the same thing happened throughout my Tsinghua teaching experience – even though I was technically a teacher. It took me ages to catch on that this wasn’t just ‘everyone-spoil-Charlotte’ season.
Relationships in Asia, from basic friendships, to familial relations, the classroom and workplace, to everyday exchanges are bound up in a cultural expressions of amicable feeling through buying little favours for one another.
And it’s super super cute.
The material expression of sentiments through gifts is much, much more casual in China and Taiwan. It’s quite different to formation of friendships in the West; I imagine that buying gifts for friends at home in this cute fashion could potentially arouse suspicion (“What does this person want from me that they’re buying stuff?”), or a sense of being bought off (“I don’t need presents to be their friend”).
It makes me think about UK workplace rules about buying presents for superiors, or cultural etiquette regarding gifts for lecturers and teachers. Friends of mine in internships and just starting work swap stories on embarrassing ‘No gifts’ rules (Well, there’s a £30 bottle of Red I’m going to have to drink) and the anti-bribery rules that make buying gifts to express thanks an absolute mine-field.
Gifts sure are complicated wherever I go…
My Dad made an off-hand comment about how it’s strange that I want to give tea, grown in India, as a present from home that somewhat ‘symbolises’ Britishness. Granted, with some intense over-thinking, there’s something of a secluded British Colonial history in using tea as a gift. Furthermore, perhaps there’s some Western superiority in giving a present of tea to a country that was cultivating, brewing and drinking it, long before we Brits knew what the whole show was even about…
Not to get lost from my original point. All academic debates aside, it’s the culture of tea-drinking that I want to share… And what a lovely culture it is! I love a good brew: first thing in the morning, after a mind-boggling lecture, in the sunshine, in the rain, after a boozy night out – there is no situation in which a tea (with a good dollop of milk) is not welcome. Hopefully, I’ll learn a little about Chinese tea in return!
DOING IT RIGHT
Barely a week later, as I watch a Taiwanese girlfriend pack for her trip abroad, a quarter of her suitcase is filled with biscuits, Chinese buns and egg rolls to give to people she meets along the way. While the process certainly makes me glad I’ve taken the teabags, barely 10g in weight of shrivelled leaves that are in my luggage for prospective friends, it’s clear that my very basic idea of pre-departure present preparation isn’t quite up to scratch with proper Chinese standards…
Oh well, I tried.
PS. CHINESE PRESENT-GIVING
I’ve got a super-simplified guide to stay away from accidentally offending when giving gifts in Chinese cultures:
~ Nothing in fours
~ No clocks
~ Nothing white
~ Never Chrysanthemums
All of these are related to funerals (white and Chrysanthemums) or death (four sounds like the word for death in Chinese, and clocks, well, time – it’s like reminding us that it’s running out…).
And on that cheery note,
Till next time x