The 12 most peculiar rules of gifting in Asia

Asian nations gift giving

Thinking before you give a gift in Asia could save you a lot of embarrassment. Source: Shutterstock

IF you’re worried about offending people from other cultures, join the club. It’s called “being a human in 2018.” 

Something the likes of disrespectful YouTuber Logan Paul knows nothing about, as he proved to the world by whipping off his pants in various places around Japan.

While that’s an extreme example and most people wouldn’t dream of being that disrespectful, worrying about offending someone’s culture should be at the forefront of every traveler’s mind.

Plenty of travelers make an effort to read up on customs and traditions of the nations they’re visiting to avoid offending anyone.

But have you ever stopped to consider that giving someone a gift could be the biggest cultural faux pas of all?

Asia gift giving

Thai woman in a traditional Thai dress offers food to a monk, not considered offensive. Source: Shutterstock

Although gift giving is one of the oldest human practices, usually associated with kindness and generosity, its meaning has morphed slowly over time.

Now, in some nations, the act of giving carries with it intricate appendages of unwritten rules, traditions, customs, and restrictions.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, there’s a risk you’ll end up offending someone and wasting your money.

Fortunately for the thoughtful traveler, US-based gift retailer Xperience Days has delved into the dos and don’ts of gift giving around Asia.

So if you’re about to practice cross-cultural gift giving in Asia, here’s everything you need to know.


Never give with your left hand in India. 

In India, the left hand is considered unclean, and we’re not going to get into why (that’s for Google to answer). But it’s essential you always use your right hand to give, pass, or receive.

Always give cash in uneven numbers.

Your obsession with even numbers will have to be parked at the airport in India as odd numbers prevail here.

In Indian culture, the number one is supposed to symbolize a new beginning whereas a number ending in zero signifies an end.

Also, many Indian people believe giving an amount ending in one will bring prosperity. So if you can spare an extra rupee, your gift will be even more greatly received.


Always remember the three golden rules of giving money.

Chinese New Year and other traditional Chinese holidays symbolize a time for giving and often, it is a gift of money.

When you’re gifting currency to someone be sure to:

  • Only give new, non-crinkled bills and never any coins.
  • Never give an amount starting or ending with four. This number is considered unlucky as it sounds like the word for “death” in Chinese.
  • Try to give sums starting with eight as this is the luckiest number in the Chinese culture.

Never give a married man a green hat, even if it’s a nice one.

Gifting a married man a green hat signifies his wife is cheating on him and we’re not sure how wildly the phrase “Don’t shoot the messenger” is accepted in China.

Legend has it that the tradition started during the Yuan dynasty when the relatives of prostitutes were forced to wear green hats.

Others believe the custom came around because the Chinese word for “green hat” sounds like the word for “cuckold” meaning the husband of an adulteress.

You can give a watch but not a clock.

A beautiful clock may seem like an innocuous gift but before you give one to a Chinese person, you should uncover the hidden meanings lurking under its ticking hands.

The first being that the word for “clock” in Chinese is a homonym for the word “death.”

The second is that some people might interpret it to mean they are running out of time on Earth.

South Korea

Don’t use red ink to write cards to your South Korean friends. 

In South Korea, the names of the dead are written in red on tombstones and funeral lanterns.

Even though you think you’re being festive, you’re essentially implying the receiver of your card is dead.

Not so festive after all.


Slapdash wrapping won’t cut it in Japan. 

When gifting a wrapped present in Japan, sometimes the way you’ve covered the gift is more important than what’s inside.

So don’t leave your wrapping to the last minute and certainly don’t use an old newspaper.

Learn Japan’s language of flowers. 

In Japan and many other cultures around the world, flowers convey meaning.

The ones to avoid giving someone for their birthday are lotus blossoms, lilies, and carnations as these are all associated with funerals.

Return with a souvenir or don’t bother returning. 

In Japan, it is a social obligation to bring back a souvenir if you’ve been on vacation. It symbolizes an apology for your absence.

Failure to bring back an omiyage, as it’s known in Japan, is considered rude.


Forget three; nine is the magic number in Thailand. 

In Thailand, gifts given in sets of nine are considered lucky because of the number’s auspicious among the Thai people.

When spoken out loud, nine sounds like the words for “moving forward,” “Let’s go eat,” and most importantly “Rice!”

Always contain your excitement or disappointment. 

In Thai culture, it is considered rude to open gifts in front of the giver.

So don’t be disappointed if the recipient thanks you and puts the unopened gift away.


Never give a handkerchief to a Singaporean.

Handkerchiefs are normally a fail-safe gift option, but in Singaporean culture, they symbolized tears and sadness.

There you have it, how to gift in Asia. The rules may seem a little overwhelming but don’t worry, because nobody will smite you down if you accidentally forget to buy a fridge magnet for your office in Japan or give an Indian person something with your left hand.

Ultimately, you’re expressing your generosity through giving, and that’s what matters.