What to bring to a Chinese Lunar New Year dinner

January 21, 2013 · 16 comments

in Loving food, Relationships

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Grasshoppers, get ready for Year of the Snake! This post is for anyone who is new to Chinese culture and wants some help navigating the social minefield. With these tips, you can relax, enjoy connecting, eat a lot — and have fun.

The big day is Feb. 10, with parties in the week before and after. For starters, I never say “Chinese New Year” because that’s rude to Vietnamese and Korean folks, who will also celebrate the launch of the new lunar calendar.

Each nationality has its own customs. For the Chinese, Lunar New Year is built around a 12-year cycle featuring the dozen animals in the Chinese zodiac: Rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep or ram, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.

When it comes to Chinese-y stuff, I’m no expert and get by with the basics. Just remember this guiding principle: The Chinese are obsessed with food and money. You’ll see how that plays out in the list below. To make sure this list is on track, I ran it by two friends, both elegant, party-hearty, hard-core Chinese social divas. Now that I’ve been properly vetted, here we go….

What to bring — and why

Keep it simple.  One of these two pals says that she likes to bring a tin of cookies. Sometimes, she’ll throw in a good bottle of cognac like Courvoisier (XO is appreciated) and maybe a traditional gift of some oranges. The number of oranges matter and we’ll get to that in a second.

The other friend, who has younger kids, said she brings only one thing to a dinner party: Red money envelopes filled with crisp bills. How much depends on how close you are to the kids. Some folks go to parties carrying a bunch of red envelopes, each with a new dollar bill in it; any kid they see at the event will get one.

Now let’s break down what’s happening with these gifts. If you understand the thinking behind them, you will be able to punt in any situation.

Cookies are better than cake. Chinese folks tend to be lactose-intolerant. Traditional desserts tend to be less sweet than Western treats. They also tend to be more eggy-y than buttery and milky. So creamy desserts will not go over well with everyone.

Eight is the luckiest number. Bring eight oranges (not eight bottles of booze, haha). If you get an email from someone you’ve never met, chances are, if there’s an “8″ or “88″ in the address, you’re dealing with someone Chinese. Getting married on August, 8, 2008 was a big deal in the culture too. Double eights are doubly lucky.

Four is the unluckiest number. The word for “death” sounds like the word for the number “four.” So don’t give four of anything. To explain the impact, Kay, one of my blog readers who is white, gave me her permission to share her recent email to me. In it she shared what happened when her son married a Chinese woman:

We reserved hotel rooms for the six of us the evening prior to their wedding. During the speaker car phone conversation on their drive to the hotel, when our son’s in-laws learned that the hotel room numbers began with the number four and that the rooms were on the fourth floor of the hotel, her parents were very unhappy with their room number. So, my husband told our son that we (my husband and I) would change their room before they arrived. When they arrived at the hotel later that night, they were pleased about their room reservation being changed to another floor in the hotel.

Don’t bring Chinese food. What’s good enough or tasty to you might be viewed as sub-par to your hosts. In fact, I’ve rarely cooked for my Chinese relatives; don’t have the nerve! They won’t tell you that your food is inferior. But given that standard, food gifts are just too much work.

Flowers are tricky. Yellow chrysanthemums are flowers of death. So no yellow blooms for happy occasions. To play it safe, I leave out white flowers too, because in the olden days, white robes were funeral gear. Old school folks will not appreciate cut flowers (such a waste of money!) and would probably prefer plants — greenery that lasts.

No blades, please.  A Chinese person would NOT give knives or scissors to another Chinese person. If you’re not Chinese, you might get away with it because your ignorance will be forgiven, especially if they’re really good knives.

Money is always on the money: The red envelope pictured in this post is the one gift that will always please your host and their kids. You can find them in Asian shops. In some Chinese-y neighborhoods, the banks often give out packets of them for free (the back of my envelope is imprinted with the “Citibank” logo). Cash gifts have a pecking order: Older folks give to younger ones. If you’re a kid or young adult, you are NOT expected to give money to your elders. Whip out those oranges or cookie tin instead.

When my daughter was little, she’d wake up to a red envelope on Lunar New Year’s day.  As she got older, this tradition got more expensive — from $5, to $10, then $20, then $50 and now, a crisp Benjamin.

And a word about weddings. A Chinese wedding is about making a prosperous union. That means bringing red envelopes or pretty cards filled with cash. Again, crisp new bills only. In the ancient days when I was a kid, $100 per guest was the norm. A few years ago, I went to one where my daughter and I gave a red envelope containing $350. At another one back then, the gift from us was $500. (And remember, don’t give $400!) What you want to do is at least cover the per-head cost of the wedding dinner.

When giving or receiving, use two hands. This is major! To share a business card, red envelope, book, bowl of soup or gift of any sort, holding out both of your hands is a sign that you are giving your full attention to the action. A sign of respect. Major courtesy points here.

Learn more about the culture. New York City has three great institutions, each with different missions. Asia Society, founded in 1956 by John D. Rockeller 3rd, takes a global approach to arts and culture. The China Institute, founded in 1926 by Henry Luce, focuses on traditional culture. Then there’s Museum of Chinese in America. Unlike the first two groups, which were founded by rich white guys, this one was started in 1980 in Chinatown by the children of Chinese immigrants. Today, it is a national organization dedicated to archiving the history and experiences of U.S. residents of Chinese heritage (I served on the board for nine years).

So that’s my basic guide to giving gifts in Chinese circles. May you use it to enjoy great meals and good times with new friends and family.  If you have feedback and questions, the comment section below is waiting for you. Oh, and Happy Lunary New Year too. xo.

 

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Amantha Tsaros January 21, 2013 at 10:10 pm

Oh, Betty! I love your posts. This was so fun to read. You could also adapt this to be a post about my family. Just change “Chinese” to “Greek” and remove the references to flowers and the number eight.

I think you’ve just saved me from some embarrassing missteps in the coming weeks. :)

2 Kristine January 22, 2013 at 4:01 pm

Betty, your blog is truly a “gift” for my family and me. My husband and I are white. Our son is married to a Chinese American woman. Your tips are fun to read and provide great do’s and dont’s for the first Lunar New Year we’re looking forward to celebrating with our son, DIL, and her parents. We will use your “basic guide” to enjoy a memorable family evening together.

Happy Lunar New Year to you as well!

Kristine (aka, Kay)

3 Skye January 22, 2013 at 4:48 pm

One of the things I worry about the most is being embarrassed-but that shouldn’t happen if I have some inisight on gift-giving in these situations. Thanks for putting me in the know! This is a smart and delightful post. And thanks to Kay for sharing her e-mail.
We’ll all celebrate wiser because of it.

4 betty ming liu January 22, 2013 at 6:17 pm

Amantha, how funny. I guess everybody likes cash, haha!

Kay, thanks for being so generous in sharing your experiences. Some misunderstandings are so unnecessary.

Skye, it’s okay not to know! I embarrass myself in front of my relatives all the time. They are affectionately tolerant and indulgent. Love conquers all. :)

5 Sally January 22, 2013 at 7:54 pm

Although my family has no Chinese heritage, we lived in a almost-Chinatown part of our city because my parents where merchants back in the 60′s and 70′s. I totally agree with the observation that the Chinese are obsessed with money; I don’t with food though as I rarely saw obese people in Beijing.

6 Fran Stern January 23, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Thanks, Betty. Valuable info with your usual style. We ethnics all have our traditions (aka superstitions & mishegoss). We Jews have a couple similar to your Chinese traditions. If you see 18 as part of an email address, it’s a Jew because the words for life and 18 are the same. Also, dress your beautiful baby in red (and pretend-spit three times: poo-poo-poo) to ward off the evil eye. Now, I’m off on a superstition tangent. Happy Lunar New Year! 8888888

7 Jennie January 23, 2013 at 5:15 pm

Just a few from my family (Chinese as well)

1) When eating from a bowl of rice with chopsticks, do not dig your chopsticks upright to hold them but instead place them horizontally on the bowl rim. The chopsticks upright in the bowl is similar to putting incense sticks during funerals.
2) When eating whole cooked fish, to reach the meat on the other side of the fish, do not flip the fish over but instead use the fork/spoon provided and carefully dislodge the meat from underneath. In fishermen villages, this would mean bad luck as in capsizing the boats. Also word for fish is linked to abundance so you do not want to do anything to change that.

Wear RED: You cannot go wrong by wearing something red for the Lunar celebrations. Even for guys, if wearing a suit, it can be just a red pocket handkerchief or a red tie. My husband is Caucasian but he has his stash of red clothing items that he wears at the required family functions.

Betty: I am getting all my red envelopes ready as we speak! I got them at TD Bank this year and also got a super nice calendar (with the fish and the good fortune symbol).

Funny that you mention the number “8″: all the vehicles that we owned has at least one “8″ in the licence plate. Same with all my family members! :-) AHHAHAHAHAH. The DMV people here knows all about the “Chinese numbers”!

8 betty ming liu January 23, 2013 at 6:16 pm

Sally, thanks for stopping by. Being a merchant in a Chinese neighborhood is fascinating. When was the last time you were in China? The Westernization of the Chinese diet has had, um, a huge impact on Chinese body fat.

Fran, from all the bat mitzvahs that my daughter went to, I knew to give cash gifts in multiples of 18. But had no idea of its larger impact on emails, license plates….now we’ll all know!

Jennie, thanks for filling out the tips list. I will never flip a fish again! I debated whether to mention NOT wearing black to a party because it’s so funereal. Any opinion on that? Glad to hear from you too.

9 Courteney January 24, 2013 at 6:21 pm

Hi Betty!

Oh man, I’m so glad I read this. Now I won’t feel stupid if I happen to see my boyfriend’s mother around the New Year… As you may recall from those on-the-spot interviews we did in class once upon a time, my boyfriend is Chinese :)

Thanks for the enlightenment,

Courteney

10 betty ming liu January 24, 2013 at 7:14 pm

You’re welcome, Courteney. I just remembered something else I should’ve included….it’s important to take and give items with two hands. That’s a sign of respect. Taking or receiving someone’s business card, a gift — whatever — with one hand is rude. This is generally true for other Asian cultures too.

You know what? I’m gonna add that to the post now.

11 TJ & MJ February 2, 2013 at 6:55 am

Betty,
I was wathing the news from China today and they are trying to institute a new tradition. Instead of fireworks they want people to play the fireworks CD! Sadly there was a wreck of a truck carrying fireworks on a bridge today and 22 people died.
I see there some big cultural diffrences. It is interesting about 4 and 8, especially since neither is prime and they share the same prime root. Many consider 7 as lucky which is good since it is the most likely output of two die. 13 is generally considered unluckly. This some say goes back to the Knights Templer.
There may be a diffrence in giving money. Although welcome, in some cases it my mean that you don’t care. The Scottish have a tradition of being a bit tight fisted. I recently went to my grandma’s funeral. My mom had laid out some of the “artifacts” of her life. Her paintings, a photo album of family. Among these was a card that had gone back and forth between her and her sister for YEARS. They would send it back and forth whenever a holiday came around (hey no use WASTING money on a card!)
Thanks for all the pointers! Perhaps someday I may use them.
PS My Dad just came from India last week… don’t ever offer them your left hand!

12 betty ming liu February 2, 2013 at 9:16 am

So many customs, so little time. Thanks for sharing!

13 Natasha Wong February 2, 2013 at 10:21 pm

Thanks Betty for the helpful tips for the Lunar New Year! I am always trying to learn more about my Chinese side and still trying to understand the traditions that go on in the New Year and for other events so your tips helped me get a better understanding about what the Lunar New year means to the Chinese!

14 betty ming liu February 3, 2013 at 8:34 am

Thanks for stopping by, Natasha! Plenty for all of us to learn. If you have questions or reflections, you are always welcome to share them here — on this particular post or anywhere else on the blog!

15 SK February 5, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Hi, Betty!

I have neighbors who are Chinese and I don’t know about giving her kids money since I won’t know how much to give. Someone told me that Chinese people like wind chimes since every time it chimes, it means good luck. Can I give them a wind chime for the New Year?
Thank you!

16 betty ming liu February 7, 2013 at 10:57 pm

SK, thanks for dropping by. I never heard of anyone receiving wind chimes, or that they are good luck. But what do I know! As for giving your neighbor’s kids money, I definitely wouldn’t start that. Then what happens next year? Will you feel like you’re on the hook again? Forget about it! No reason to create more obligations for yourself. Why not keep it simple? Just wish them happy new year. I highly doubt they are expecting more; your thoughtful words would be enough. (But if you liked the ideas on my post then you might try one them.)

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