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Expat etiquette: what gift should you take to parties?

A small token of affection in one country could be interpreted as an insult in another. So what do you take if invited to a social gathering in your new country? article By Teresa Dolan for telegraph.co.uk

Chocolates might be a fairly standard offering to give to your dinner party host in Britain – but what should you do in India, Taiwan, China and Vietnam, for example?

Is it appropriate to bring a gift when you are invited to someone’s house in France? Expats who have recently moved here often ask me this question.
Our answer is that over our 10 years of living in Fontevraud in the west of France we have invited many French folks for aperitifs and meals, and they have always brought flowers or wine.
We’ve also attended many social gatherings – guests usually do bring something and we always do. We have even had French guests at our guesthouse give us a gift on departure.
Last summer a French lady came in for lunch with her friend and then later on, following a walk, she returned with a bunch of wild flowers as a gift that I daresay she had purloined from the hedgerows of Fontevraud.
Another customer used to visit Fontevraud-l’Abbaye every Easter. She would stay at the local hotel just across the way from us, and every year she would call in to our tea room for a coffee and a slice of home made cake and bring us a gift of chocolates.

But what about customs of giving when one is invited to a cocktail party or to dinner in other countries? Thinking that it might be interesting to compare traditions I began to fire off some emails to friends who are currently living overseas.
In Turkey flowers such as roses and carnations are given as gifts, or a box of chocolates. A bottle of wine might be given, but guests would need to check first if their hosts drink alcohol, I was told.

Carnations should go down well in Turkey

In Vietnam, guests are known to offer cigarettes and I have heard on good authority from our friend Nat, a photographer who often travels to Vietnam on assignments, that it is becoming in the cities quite fashionable to give flowers as a gift to one’s hosts.

Otherwise says Nat, “Flowers are reserved as gifts to be given in temples for the gods and for family ancestors. At New Year and for the Têt festival, which launches spring time, guests will offer money, with the notes set within beautiful red, usually embossed envelopes.

“Alternatively consumable products such as foreign biscuits, wine, beer, tea, or fruits are given. It is customary that when you offer someone something, you make beautiful gift packages which they do not open right away.”

In Cyprus and Greece it is usual to offer sweet pastries or other consumables as gifts to your hosts, I am told by another friend. Baklavas would be perfect. Such pastries should be beautifully packaged, and do not be surprised if they are not opened in front of you.

Baklava is a good option in Greece and Cyprus

or Spain, so I have been told, the issue simply doesn’t arise as says our friend Jacqueline “you almost never get invited to people’s homes.”

“All entertaining”, she tells me quite emphatically “is done outside the home”.

This appears to be the same for Arab countries. If there are social dinners, it is usually the men who are invited and such dinners are hosted in a restaurant where the host pays, or in some exceptional instances you as the invited guest might be discreetly encouraged to pay and the host pretend that they have paid.

According to Jim, an engineer friend of ours who has lived and worked throughout the Middle and Far East over a number of years, one of the major reasons why you would not take a gift to a celebration in certain countries is because it could be construed as insulting.

“It’s as if you were implying that your host is somehow lacking that he would need a gift,” Jim says. “It’s a question of pride in offering to your guests the best possible social gathering.”

Another friend of ours, who has spent quite a lot of time in Kenya as an army wife, told us that guests are usually staying the night if invited for dinner, as everywhere is so far away. Taking chocolates and wine and sometimes flowers would be an appropriate gift.

Apparently the Chinese and the Taiwanese give tea to the hosts, but also probably due to Western influences, the latter are also beginning to give flowers.

One chap that I spoke to from Taiwan who happened to be staying with us this past weekend told me about this tea giving custom. He also said that guests must never bring a time piece, which is also I understand true of China. He said that by giving a watch or some such item you are wishing your host to die!

In India, my friend Sue said that when she visited houses, especially those in Southern India, the lady of the house would offer to wash her visitor’s feet and rub fragrant oils into them. To my mind and from a guest’s perspective what a wonderful idea.

In India, some lucky guests might be welcomed with a foot massage

When invited to an Indian family home for dinner, she tells me that it is considered good etiquette to give a gift, such as a box of chocolates or sweets. If your host has children, to a small toy or a book would be most welcome. If you are visiting during a festival, it is customary to carry a box of sweets.

In India, as in Indonesia, it is not unusual to give flowers as a gift, but the etiquette is a little more complex than in other parts of the world because different flowers have different connotations, usually linked to their colour. White flowers for example are associated with funerals. If you are planning to give flowers it is probably a good idea to check with the florist as to what would be appropriate. Yellow, red and green are considered lucky colours.

Again drinking alcohol is culturally not accepted in most parts of India and many Indian families do not keep alcohol in the home. However, if your host does drink alcohol and keeps such drinks at home, a bottle of whiskey or wine is an acceptable gift.

I am thankful that in our neck of the woods, a gift of a scented candle goes down a treat with most of our hosts.



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