Chinese New Year is approaching for the first time since you got together with your girlfriend, or perhaps the first time since she made the big step of telling her parents about you – make no mistake, telling the parents about a suitor, particularly a foreign one, is a significant milestone in a relationship. Your girlfriend will of course be visiting her family, assuming she has already left home and you may even be accompanying her. Naturally, you want to make a good impression, aware of how important this is, particularly given your status as an outsider. And so the issue of hong bao (red envelopes) arises.
Initially, particularly if you have not been in China for long, you may have difficulty with the idea of giving envelopes stuffed full of money to family or friends. To your mind, gifts are more personal and hard cash seems rather mercenary – as if you’re saying exactly how much they’re worth. People do give money as a gift in the west but it is often in the form of tokens and more likely to be for children. Lets face it, a gift of money says to you “I really couldn’t think of what to get you and I didn’t want to risk getting it wrong”.
This is something you just have to get over! You are not going to single-handedly change Chinese culture and as you come to a deeper understanding of it, you will see that this practice is not so strange or mercenary. Bear in mind that giving money is not unheard of in European culture – for example pinning money to the bride’s dress in Italy. Nevertheless, you know you are going to be judged on how much you give and upon whether you get the figure right, avoiding inauspicious numbers. Get it right and you may well have smoothed the way to a fruitful relationship with those who may one day become your in-laws. And what goes around comes around – strong family relationships can be very helpful in Chinese society, particularly in terms of getting started out in married life and providing childcare.
This is not to say non-monetary gifts are unwelcome! As with Christmas and many other festivals, eating is an important part of Chinese New Year. Coffee table snacks that can be worked through over the course of the holiday will go down well. You have two broad options – local or from your own culture – but the format is remarkably similar. Cakes, biscuits, savory nibbles like beans, nuts, chips etc. have their equivalents in both cultures. Perhaps this is a decision to consult your girlfriend on, depending on whether her parents’ are more likely to be impressed or bewildered by foreign fare.
Fortunately, you have one asset up your sleeve – your girlfriend. You love her. You trust her. She understands the culture. The simple answer is, you should let her decide. She knows best. Really. Talk to her about it, tell her how you feel about it and discuss what you can afford – there may be alternative figures depending on how much you have spare. But do not skimp. There really is no point and it will only get you into trouble. The likelihood is that you are well paid compared to most local people and even if you are short of money at the moment, as far as they’re concerned you should be well off. The fact is, this is more important than a couple of nights out with your mates as you enjoy ten days off work. You should listen to her while expecting her to listen to you too. And then do what you’re told.