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August 25, 2012 10:44 AM   Subscribe

A (white, American) friend's parents gave me a clock as a gift, which in China is really not done. This was clearly not malicious, so I'm not offended and my parents are getting over it, but I'm wondering whether there's any way to tell them not to give this particular gift to any other Chinese people they may know. The problem is that I don't know any way to broach the subject that wouldn't call attention to their faux pas, and it's entirely possible that they just don't know any other Chinese people, in which case I'd much rather avoid embarrassing them. Should I say anything, either to them or to my friend their son?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (38 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Are you in China now? If not, I'd skip it.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:50 AM on August 25, 2012 [7 favorites]

Tell this to your friend in the form of a funny story: Hey, I really appreciate that clock your folks gave me, but it's hilarious because my parents are freaking out about it, because, you see, in Chinese, "to give a clock" has the same pronunciation as "to attend a funeral" and it's considered extremely bad luck. LOL.
posted by Jon_Evil at 10:50 AM on August 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm of Chinese descent. If you're not in China, but in the U.S., I'd say accept it in the spirit it was intended and trust that other people like you will have the capacity to respond as graciously as you.
posted by alusru at 10:51 AM on August 25, 2012 [23 favorites]

Tell your friend, don't tell the parents, in a non-alarming way. Like "that clock, I love it... it reminded me of one of those things that are really ingrained in some cultures and totally unknown in others, you know? Like in China, that's never done, and most Chinese people would be really weirded out. Oh yeah, go look it up, it's totally a Thing. I figured you guys had no idea, it's just kind of funny!"
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:52 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

What are the chances of them giving another Chinese family a clock? Slim to none? Then drop it.
posted by amro at 10:56 AM on August 25, 2012 [16 favorites]

I personally would not say anything, just graciously accept the gift... the most I would do is say "Friend, do your parents know any other Chinese people? I don't want to embarrass them, because I appreciate their thoughtfulness, but many Chinese people feel that clocks are bad luck to give as gifts. I'm sure they had no idea, and it was a sweet gesture... just wanted to mention it."

Or something to that effect.

I actually really dislike the suggestions to make a joke out of this.
posted by sm1tten at 11:11 AM on August 25, 2012 [26 favorites]

Use this as a chance to educate your friend on Chinese culture. Perhaps your friend would be interested to learn about what to avoid giving Chinese friends and acquaintances, as I was.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:24 AM on August 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

And I agree you should tell your friend, not their parents, unless you're close to his parents.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:25 AM on August 25, 2012

If you are in the US, accept the gift and the intent of the gift. If you are in China, tell them that it is a social taboo to do so.

You are American first, Chinese second.

I've crossed cultures for half my life now, so I think this is a reasonable solution.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:26 AM on August 25, 2012 [6 favorites]

I think I agree with the above; if you're in the USA, let it go. Clocks are perfectly nice gifts here. If you're in China, tell you're friend it is a social taboo. When in Rome, etc.
posted by Justinian at 11:49 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am Chinese-American. (Well, maybe Taiwanese-American? Let's not open that can of worms.)

If I were in China, I would let your friend know in a casual way that clocks are inappropriate gifts there. Not as a joke, but not directly with the thank-you -- just a low-key, "hey, did you know?" at an opportune time.

If I were in the US or other non-culturally-Chinese locale, I wouldn't say anything at all. After all, if you take this to its logical extension, especially in a place like the US where there are apt to be people from many different backgrounds, this would mean that gift-givers would have to be culturally conversant with gift-giving taboos of all the various backgrounds of gift recipients. Maybe a nice idea in theory, but pretty impractical in reality.
posted by andrewesque at 12:18 PM on August 25, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'm a big gift giver. I would really want to know about the clock thing. I think you can both gracious and informative. I would not make a joke out of it. I would go with what sm1tten says (although they think you should probably not say anything) ""Friend, do your parents know any other Chinese people? I don't want to embarrass them, because I appreciate their thoughtfulness, but many Chinese people feel that clocks are bad luck to give as gifts. I'm sure they had no idea, and it was a sweet gesture... just wanted to mention it."
posted by OsoMeaty at 12:23 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm Chinese and I know you don't give clocks to people as gifts because it means you are sending that person to his or her funeral, but other than Chinese people, no one else really knows that. I once was asked what kind of gifts I would like for a wedding gift from the parents of the groom. I replied with anything except a clock because a clock means they want you to die. We then received a clock for an anniversary present.

I said nothing after I hit the roof, came down and hit the roof again.

Unlike my situation, I think you friend's parents gave you a clock because non-Chinese people don't have any strange ideas attached to things like Chinese people do. If they knew what it meant to give a clock to someone Chinese, they would probably be horrified. You will not receive another clock again from these people, it isn't like they give clocks as annual gifts so I would just not say anything about it. One day a conversation will come up about silly traditions and you can talk about how Chinese people don't give umbrellas, clocks, salted fish or whatever other ridiculous thing as gifts because it means death or that they hope you are on your way to your own funeral. Until then, I would just not say anything.

Your parents being upset is really on them because the phrase, "White people don't know" should have made them understand.
posted by Yellow at 12:34 PM on August 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

A clock is a nice gift in the US, and it was given to you by Americans, so it seems pretty straightforward to me: let it go.

Telling your friend won't do anything because what is he supposed to do with that information?

As for the parents, all you would do is make them uncomfortable if you say something, and then they might become paranoid in the future about giving gifts out of fear that their gift might be insulting in some way.

I think a general rule of thumb, at least in the giant melting pot that is the US, is to accept gifts as graciously as possible unless the giver obviously meant to be insulting - and even then it's often better to take the high road.

If the parents go to China and want to give people gifts there, then maybe let them know that a clock wouldn't be a good idea. Even then I would not mention the clock though, just give them some good ideas for gifts they could give.
posted by fromageball at 1:19 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Until I read Yellow's comment I was completely baffled as to why a clock would possibly be considered as a malicious gift. I'd be willing to bet your friend and their parents are equally clueless. Maybe cut them some slack about their "faux pas", and understand that to think ill of them for giving a well-intentioned gift could very easily be received as a faux pas as well.

If you think they might have occasion to give another Chinese-born person a gift in the future, then please speak to your friend (not their parents) about what kinds of gifts would be badly received by a Chinese-born person. To not do so would, to me, be a greater offense than the one you feel they've committed against you.
posted by palomar at 1:37 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thank you for asking this question, because I had no idea of this tradition until now.

I would tell the friend, because I am sure his parents wouldn't want to hurt anyone's feelings through their lack of information. And my guess is that if they gave you a clock, they are probably people who think of clocks as a default gift (I am the same with picture frames myself) so it could happen.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:00 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

How about something along the lines of "Thanks so much, I love it! I never would have spent the money myself and I'd have never gotten it as a gift from any of my Chinese family because it's like a superstitious thing never to give a clock as a gift. "
posted by tyllwin at 2:33 PM on August 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

As many others have asked, was this gift given in the U.S.? I agree that if it was, then you should not directly say or even hint at that it was not an appropriate gift. In U.S. culture, that is considered rude. Now if this gift was a gift given in China, then absolutely say something.

"Thanks so much, I love it! I never would have spent the money myself and I'd have never gotten it as a gift from any of my Chinese family because it's like a superstitious thing never to give a clock as a gift. "

No matter how you sugar coat it, any statements like these are going to make the gift givers feel bad.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 2:47 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I had no idea about this and think it's absolutely fascinating. I'm also a big gift-giver, and a while ago I bought a funny alarm clock as a gag gift and was going to give it to a first generation Chinese-American friend, but never did. I'm now really glad I didn't!

Basically, if your friend's parents are the sort of people who aren't likely to second-guess themselves, and take what you say at face value, I really think you should tell your friend about this and they can let their parents know (along with the fact that you do appreciate the gift and understand it was unintentional). In America, it's part of the fun and complexity of living with people from all over the place - there's no homogenous American gift-giving etiquette because there is no homogenous American. In China, I think they should really know because the chances of this coming up again are much higher.

I don't agree with the people above that Americans are all going to be made to feel bad if you let them know about this. Certainly, some Americans might feel this way, but many would prefer to know. I think you need to take an educated guess about if these people are going to take the information as helpful, or as a veiled insult. There's no way for you to tell them without directly referencing their faux pas, so you'll have to decide if they'll read negativity into it or not. We can't know about them; it's up to you.
posted by Mizu at 3:06 PM on August 25, 2012

To others reading this thread, the Chinese Culture page I linked to upthread is titled Chinese Gift-Giving: What Not to Buy. As anon hinted Yellow spelled out, clocks are a (the biggest?) gift associated with funerals (because 送鐘 (sòng zhōng, send clock) sounds like 送終 (sòng zhōng, the funeral ritual)). Towels, cut flowers (particularly yellow Chrysanthemums and white flowers), and presents, wrapping paper and items that are black or white could also be associated with funerals.

Gifts in sets of four are bad because 四 (sì, four) sounds like 死 (sǐ, death).

Fan (shan) and the umbrella (san) have very similar sounds to the word “san”, which means “separation” or “scattered,” and “cutting a pear in two halves” (feng li) can be another forbidden action among Chinese because it sounds exactly like feng li, which means “separation” [source]. Sharp objects like scissors or knives could also imply you wish to sever a relationship. Giving shoes 送鞋子 (sòng xiézi, give shoes) sounds similar to break up, and two shoes can also imply going two ways, so giving a pair of shoes could also imply you wish to break up (though who would give one shoe as a gift?). The last cultural gift to avoid from the list are handkerchiefs (送巾, sòng jīn) which sounds like 斷根 (duàngēn), a farewell greeting, again a bad gift for a close friend or a romantic relationship you wish to continue.

Note: I'm just forwarding these cultural connotations on, and cannot vouch for them from first-hand experiences or understanding. The second link, a Google quickview of a PDF, includes references to a small sample size (10 people) who were asked about the cultural connotations of fans, umbrellas, and cutting pears, among other phrases and actions that could be taboo or unpleasant in Chinese and Korean cultures.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:01 PM on August 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm an American who has spent a decent amount of time in China, with deep local interaction. Please do not take this the wrong way - do not try to "fix" this.

The Chinese fully understand that non-Chinese will give gifts that are taboo. They don't care. Reason being: the offense is only taken when the giver of such a gift is themselves Chinese. That's the whole point of the cultural taboo - it's cultural. If you are outside of this culture, the taboo not only does not apply, but most locals will have a good laugh about it. Why? Because like you, they (the Chinese) do not want to be held to local American taboos when giving gifts. This understanding is healthy, and absolves all parties of such taboos.

Giving a gift has a spirit behind it. This crosses virtually all cultures. The actual gift is not such a big deal. Not giving the wrong gift is a bigger deal.
posted by Kruger5 at 4:41 PM on August 25, 2012 [8 favorites]

anonymous: Maybe your friend responds well to jokes, maybe the friend's parents would prefer to receive direct advise, or maybe these individuals are uniquely sensitive and thus you should just politely say "thanks, it reminds me of America, I love it." Only you know what type of people your friend and his or her parents are. It's a judgement call, but you'll make the right decision.

But just to add another data point; I am a white kid from middle America. I had Asian American friends all through school (usually third generation), I studied Chinese for two years, I spent six months in China, I've heard of most of the gift giving traditions filthy light thief mentioned, the Clock one is a new one for me. I had never heard about the connotation of "bisecting pears" or "handkerchief" either. I think it's a funny and interesting story. If I had given you a clock I'd want to hear about its connotations in Chinese society because I'd love to tell the story of what song zhong means in Mandarin to friends at a lunch or party. Then I'd say "Hey, I also saw a Reggie Jackson jersey on sale for Four Hundred Forty Four dollars, at least I didn't give them that." But I think part of the fun of meeting people from other cultures is learning about interesting little idiosyncrasies like that. Just me.
posted by midmarch snowman at 4:49 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

As long as a sympathy card was not included and you are in the USA, then don't mention it. My grandmother had so many taboos on gifts, that people were terrified to give her gifts. She wanted gifts and would make a big deal about the wrong kind of gift. They were innocuous gifts: clocks, pins, pens, umbrellas, handkerchiefs, shoes, you name it, there was some kind of bad luck associated with it. It wasn't like people were giving her monkey feet and graveyard dust.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 5:03 PM on August 25, 2012

I would suggest saying nothing (outside China) UNLESS the parents live in a place with a large Chinese population (San Fransisco, NYC), or you know for a fact they do interact with Chinese people (kids' school, business, etc.). If they're at non-trivial risk for doing it again, then it would be right to mention it, but wait for the proper moment. Not right away.

A similar thing happened/is happening to me. I am going to a friend's wedding and am on a very tight budget. All of my existing good clothes are black. In Texas, where I grew up, the older generation does not wear black to a wedding (we're talking women's clothes), even though IN PRACTICE the younger generation wears whatever. No one would think less of you, but to be a person of old-school good taste, you don't do that. So the wedding is in New England. I called the bridegroom, saying that I knew he and the bride could care less, but would any of the family care? They had never heard of such a thing and thought I was lovably silly for asking. Still I counsel any friend who chances to attend a wedding in the South not to wear black. It can't hurt not to.
posted by skbw at 6:18 PM on August 25, 2012

(I'm assuming you are in the US)

Don't say anything about it. It's considered so rude to express ingratitude over gifts that it's a very delicate situation to even tell close relatives that a gift was unwanted.

I wouldn't say anything about this specific gift to your friend, but if gift giving is going to be a regular thing between your families, at some future time when another gift giving occasion is approaching, you could discuss in general if gifts are to be exchanged and what people might like.
posted by yohko at 6:45 PM on August 25, 2012

skbw, the older generation in New England had the same thing about black at weddings, but it is completely not a thing here with anyone under 60.

I wish the OP had been a sock rather than anon, because I would have loved to know more about how the parents responded to the gift given to their child--whether they thought the friend was showing disrespect, or whether they just found it odd that anyone would give a clock as a gift.

Some of my family members had the traditional belief that if you give someone a knife or scissors as a gift, the recipient had to give the giver a coin in return. I am not 100% clear on why, or whether this is an Irish, English, or US only tradition.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:24 PM on August 25, 2012

The only thing I would say to the gift giver is, "Thank you very much."
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:02 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

What I would say is try to let go of all superstitions whether they be American, Chinese, or otherwise.
posted by Dansaman at 11:41 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

You are American first, Chinese second.

Nowhere does the anonymous poster say that they are American.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:48 PM on August 25, 2012 [8 favorites]

If I were the gift-giver, I would want to know, because it's interesting and to not make the mistake again. How are people going to learn about one another if no one says anything? is my view. So I hope you do let them know, either directly or by telling your friend.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 6:13 AM on August 26, 2012

To anonymous: you can ask a mod to add comments on your behalf, or contact another user to do so, if you have anything you wish to add to this thread.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:03 AM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some of my family members had the traditional belief that if you give someone a knife or scissors as a gift, the recipient had to give the giver a coin in return. I am not 100% clear on why, or whether this is an Irish, English, or US only tradition.

Chinese Singaporean here - we do this as well. As many of the superstitions are less ingrained in the minds of the younger generation, we sometimes forget about them and "oops we got you this watch/sneakers/leatherman for your birthday" happens often. So the recipient gives a coin in return - the gift is recharacterised as a purchase, and the faux pas then ceases to exist.
posted by hellopanda at 10:15 AM on August 26, 2012

Some of my family members had the traditional belief that if you give someone a knife or scissors as a gift, the recipient had to give the giver a coin in return. I am not 100% clear on why, or whether this is an Irish, English, or US only tradition.

Chinese, born in Taiwan here. That's what my aunt told me to do when she gave me a nice Seiko alarm clock as a gift. I just had to give her a trivial amount of money. This action symbolized a purchase of a clock, which got around the superstition.

Since this is someone you consider a friend, I don't think it would be a big deal to explain this cultural quirk with them. I mean, it's not like the West doesn't have it's superstitions concerning Friday the 13th or walking under ladders. And, there are even ones concerning death, like the military superstition about Charms candy.

At the very least you can say you highly appreciate the gift, which is why you are giving them a few lucky pennies so that everyone continues to have good luck!
posted by FJT at 10:34 AM on August 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I feel like if you say something, it would offend the gift-giver. In which case you'd be even. Do you want to be even?
posted by masquesoporfavor at 11:38 AM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think it was Gandhi who said that an offense for an offense would piss off a lot of people.

Some people would be interested to know about the practices of another culture, others not so much. Anon, you probably know your friend well enough to know this about them, even if you don't know it about your parents. Chances are your friends parents don't always give clocks as gifts, so it's not highly likely that they'll provide some other Chinese friends with a clock. But they may enjoy learning something, and might be able to laugh at their social gaff, especially that you personally were not offended. Or they might feel awful about the whole thing, which could make you feel more awkward in the situation. This is something your friend would know.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:28 PM on August 26, 2012

I find the people who are telling you to ignore all superstition (plus the people who are assuming you are American because your gift-giver was) extraordinarily insensitive, possibly more so than the gift-giver. The gift-giver has the benefit of the doubt because they don't know; the "end superstition" people know and don't care. Cultural norms and superstitions are not something that can be dropped so easily and rejection of them - even if you don't believe in the intended effect - is often a sign of rejecting family and heritage; things that are super strong in Asian values. It's like spitting on your parents' grave (or hell, directly at your parents).

Also I think what some people are missing here (and perhaps I'm reading this off) is that giving clocks etc as presents isn't so much a means of magic as it is a means of communication. "I think so lowly of you that I rather you be dead". Hence Yellow's hitting-the-roof especially after she already told the groom's parents about the significance. And when this communication is so ingrained in you, it's hard to overcome the first impulse of "oh they want me to die!!! they hate me!!" that comes before "oh wait, how are they supposed to know that's what a clock means".

As for your quandry: I suppose it depends on how close you are to the parents, but I would talk about it to the friend at least. They would be able to pass the word on on your behalf.
posted by divabat at 9:29 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

(and the American first, Chinese second comment is super ignorant in ways that are rather deraily to this question; the assumption that the OP is American is just the surface.)
posted by divabat at 9:31 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

>I think it was Gandhi who said that an offense for an offense would piss off a lot of people.

“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. Frequently attributed to Gandhi, "but no example of its use by the Indian leader has ever been discovered". ML King did use a version of it, as did Fiddler on the Roof.
posted by FlyingMonkey at 6:35 PM on August 31, 2012

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