Hong bao tree at Grand Hyatt Taipei
“Money doesn’t grow on trees… hey, wait a second…”

One of the differences between Taiwanese and American etiquette that I had the hardest time getting used to are the different gift giving rituals. In Taiwan, you are supposed to refuse a gift several times before you finally accept it. The first time I gave a present in Taipei, I was befuddled when the recipient signaled “stop” with his hands, shook his head and firmly said, “No, no, thank you.” He repeated that several times. I practically had to shove the gift into his face. I actually panicked. I kept thinking, “Is he seriously going to make me drag a two pound box of candy back home, where I am going to eat the whole thing?” After going back and forth for a bit, my friend finally accepted it, and I realized that he had just been trying to be polite. After all, who turns down box of delicious gourmet toffee?

In American culture, you are supposed to act delighted and say thanks as soon as you receive a gift. The closest people usually come to a refusal is “Oh, you shouldn’t have!” You have it ingrained in you that expressing happiness is part of the reaction expected by the giver, even if he or she presents you with something crappy like a copy of “Moving Away From Co-Dependency” immediately after you start a relationship (though in that case, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to slap him or her).

I was thinking about this because seeing Lunar New Year paraphernalia always reminds me of when I was little and got hong bao (thinking of free money always makes me nostalgic). Obviously, this was a long time ago. I don’t remember how I accepted the gifts. Having grown up in America, I probably just grabbed them, said thank you and skipped off to count my money (I was polite enough to know that you should not open red envelopes in front of the giver). The whole ritual of refusing a present a bazillion times reminds me of how compliments are accepted in Taiwanese culture. You are supposed to act like you don’t deserve it (even if you think that you do).

I definitely prefer American gift giving etiquette. When I give a present, I really hope that my recipient will be thrilled with my exquisite taste (in candy) and uncanny ability to pick something (like toffee) that they will truly enjoy. I always act like I’m really happy when I get a gift. It is almost instinctual, in fact. When someone hands a package to me, I feel my face launching into gleeful mode (and it stays frozen there for a while, even if the present is a copy of “Moving Away From Co-Dependency.” Goddammit, what is wrong with people?). Even though I was raised in a Taiwanese American household, pretending to adamantly refuse a gift from a friend just feels so awkward to me. On the other hand, I sometimes worry that if I don’t do so in Taiwan, it makes me look greedy or ungrateful. It’s not like I am showered with presents, but not knowing what to do when I get something really does worry me.

Also, it’s just against my nature to refuse candy. If anyone does give me a giant box of toffee, however, I promise I’ll pretend to bat it away before sheepishly accepting it and retreating into a corner to devour the whole thing. Mmm… toffee…