Of Gifts and Returns

A store offering to buy back gifts

China is a gift giving culture, no more so than at Spring Festival. In addition to red envelopes of cash (红包), given usually to children but also passed among older family members, when visiting relatives and friends in the days following the lunar new year visitors are expected to come bearing gifts. These gifts are often edible, and judging by the over-emphasis on packaging as much about show as about the gift themselves. Among the assortment of snacks, candies, and alcohol is fruit, and it’s not uncommon to see people carting around 10 or 20 pound gift boxes of pears or apples.

It also seems that these gifts often get re-gifted; the dried apricots that uncle Bo brought get taken along on the trip to visit Grandma. Selling these gift boxes is big business and no matter how efficiently they get re-gifted at the end of the day someone is left with huge quantities of fruit and packaged food.

So I was interested the other day to notice a few shops specifically offering to buy back Spring Festival gifts. Instead of eating 3 pounds of individually wrapped almonds, just return them to the store for 60-80% of the cost. Thus the symbolic gift makes a complete circle and shop owners get a nice little profit.

A Spring Festival gift display, mostly food...

The whole thing’s got me thinking about gift giving in general. From a pure economic stand-point non-monetary gifts are horribly inefficient. The idea being that it’s really hard to choose something for someone that will give them the full possible enjoyment/benefit from spending the same amount of money themselves. NPR’s Planet money did a podcast on the topic recently. Between cash laden envelopes and large quantities of fruit it seems like Chinese gift giving embodies both the most and least efficient forms of gift giving.

Then there’s the environmental argument against gifts as unnecessary waste. The salient China connection is that token symbolic gifts of food-stuffs are very common; the country seems more bent than most on receptions, dinners, conferences, and other official events and their compulsory gifts. One environmental non-profit here has even started an initiative to, among other things, encourage giving gift cards instead of moon cakes for Mid-Autumn Festival.

Still, on my recent vacation to Guizhou and Hunan, I made sure to pick up a good variety of local snacks to pass around the office when I got back.

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