This interview is dedicated to all Non-Chinese friends who would like to celebrate Chinese New Year in the full spirit and show appreciation to Chinese people in their life in keeping with Chinese cultural traditions and without causing offense or embarrassment.
Sarah is an expat from New York who moved to Shanghai with her husband last March and is falling in love with the Chinese culture and people here. She is studying Mandarin and has tens of thousands of questions about language, life, and culture.
Emily, is the co-founder & CEO of GoEast, an expert on Chinese language and culture with an MA in Comparative Literature. She is a native of Zhejiang province and lived in Beijing for 4 years and now lives in Shanghai for 8 years. Emily enjoys sharing Chinese culture with people all over the world by teaching Mandarin.
Sarah: Do people exchange gifts for Chinese New Year?
Emily: Yes, it is a big part of the festive celebration.
Sarah: Do you give hong baos (red envelopes filled with money) to just anyone or only to children?
Emily: Hong baos (红包hóngbāo) are great gifts for children, the elderly, and people who work for you.
Sarah: How can you show appreciation to service workers at New Year's (driver, ayi, nanny, etc)?
Emily: A hong bao is a great gesture to show your appreciation. An appropriate amount is usually 3 to 5 times one day's pay or the cost of a single service. Giving some small wrapped gifts in addition is even more thoughtful.
Sarah: What kind of gifts are appropriate?
Emily: Food is the best gift, especially the things you know they love to eat. Giving food shows that you want to help keep them healthy! Savory and sweet foods are both acceptable but remember that most Chinese people don't like very sweet desserts.
Sarah: I’ve noticed there are a lot of food items for sale in boxes. Is it customary to give gifts in boxes or can I use wrapping paper or a gift bag?
Emily: Fancy wrapping or decorations are expected during Chinese New Year since it is the most important time of the year. Presenting gifts in fancy and decorative packages shows that it is a very special occasion.
Sarah: I like to make presents to show that the gift came from my heart. Are homemade gifts acceptable or looked down upon?
Emily: It could go either way. If it is wrapped very decoratively and, if it's food, tastes better than the ones from a shop, it will be highly appreciated. Otherwise, it is not suitable at this time of the year.
Sarah: Is it thoughtful or weird to give gifts from my home country?
Emily: It is absolutely thoughtful to do this! However you need to be really considerate. Tastes in food and lifestyle can be crazily different. Did you know that most Chinese people don't use a can opener? So when my parents received a can of maple syrup, they spent 2 whole hours trying to open it with a knife!
Sarah: When do you give gifts to people: before, during, or after the New Year? I don't know when they're going home for the holiday!
Emily: Chinese New Year is a big and long celebration so it's OK to give a gift anytime between 7 days ahead of the New Year Eve (which is called 小年xiǎonián Little Year) and 15 days after it (which is called 元宵yuánxiāo Latern Festival).
Wish you an auspicious Chinese New Year and hope you fully enjoy it like a pro!