Gifts to bring to China
Q: We will be traveling to Shanghai, Suzhou, Beijing, Xi'an, (and more) starting August 22nd. We were wondering if there are any sorts of small gift items that would be appreciated by local residents that we should bring along.
In recent years it has become a little harder to find good gifts to bring to China. In the old days, small electronic devices were quite popular. Nowadays, with so many of such products being made in China, they no longer make good gifts. The cause is not completely lost, however. You can, for example, bring some souvenir-type of items as gifts. Stuff that clearly says America or a part of it. T-shirts, paper weight, pens, sports goods (caps, etc.), even postcards with American or local views, which the friends can put on or display in their office or home, so that they can tell others: "An American friend from Seattle gave me this..."
Whereas you want to bring something American or something with a local flavor, you do not want to come out very strong in terms of patriotism - like a T-shirt with a big U.S. national flag on it. That would be a little too overtly political. Mountains, rivers, street scenes, famous buildings, fishing and hunting, pop stars - there are so many popular American icons and themes you choose from.
Sports goods are popular among younger male Chinese. NBA is very popular in China. They know relatively little about baseball or football.
For close friends, people sometimes bring stuff of some real value. When some Chinese Americans visit their relatives in China, for instance, some of them would bring Ginseng (what they call "Xiyang shen" - Western Ginseng - which can be found in Chinatown shops). The Chinese believe Ginseng is good for the health of the elderly ("I've got something for your parents..."). For the same reasons, a couple of Centrum vitamins can also be popular. Again, this is more like among relatives and close friends. For new friends, better gifts would the souvenir-type mentioned above. After all, giving gifts is mostly a nice gesture.
A box of chocolate made in the U.S. is good for either a close or not so close friend, especially for friends with kids.
And keep in mind that many Chinese do not know a whole lot about American customs. So, if you give them something that is a surprise, they may very well just think, ah, that's the American way to give gifts...
Still, there are a few things you may want to avoid. Not that anyone has any good reason to do this, but never give a clock to a Chinese as a gift. The Chinese word for clock pronounces the same as the word "end." So if you send someone a clock, you're sending him to the end - you know what that means. Similarly, the number 4 is not a nice word.
Generally the Chinese are free-going and good-humored with their friends. If you make an effort to be nice, they know it, and that counts.