I don't want it!

May 3, 2017

When I go places in China to visit family, friends, friends of family, family of friends, family friends of friend’s families, or friends’ families of family friends, there’s this thing that they do: give me stuff. Giant boxes of snacks, candy, fresh Chinese pastries, money. It’s great, but I always feel a bit undeserving.

I can’t really say that getting stuff is not fun, or that the stuff they give me is undesirable. But the enthusiasm with which they give things catches me off guard sometimes.

I used to always say no. Usually a polite kind of no, a kind used for things you want but can’t be too eager about. Sometimes, it’s a repeated no, because I feel that they have actually made a significant sacrifice in their lives to give me a gift. Giving hundreds of dollars on a $8,655 annual wage seems a little high a price for the love of your second cousin once removed. I sometimes avoid taking gifts because they are impossible to lug around due to an absurd amount of packaging, or because large quantities of snacks cannot be eaten in the short periods of time that I am usually in China.

In Chinese, they call this politeness keqi, hence the Chinese translation for “you’re welcome” is bu keqi (bu meaning “don’t” or “not”). And as much as people tell other people in China to not be keqi, no one seems to get the message. The custom of saying no when offered anything has definitely not changed in my lifetime. The best way to decisively refuse snacks is by claiming you have a deadly food allergy (and even then, they might tell you to give it to your brother).

Some people take the act of giving things very seriously, which can get downright uncomfortable. A man I had known for five minutes offered me a giant box of assorted Chinese nuts when I said “I’m feeling some dinner!” Personally, I’m not sure of whether or not he carries around a box of nuts specifically for opportunities like this. Another man invited my family over for some hot pot and the whole family proceeded to serve us as if it were a restaurant where they were not supposed to sit down in the first place.

So I’ve changed my tactics. Instead of saying no to everything, I say yes, catching the gift-giver off guard (they expect a no). By doing this, I assert my Americanness, as well as my ability to not be subject to the custom of saying no. I hope, by saying yes the first time, I show that I’m a man capable of making my own gift-receiving decisions (a little ironic, right?). So for future gifts, they’ll know I’m telling my real answer the first time. Whether or not this method works, I have yet to see.

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