Thursday, August 1, 2013

Cultural minefield: International students and gifts

I work at a big university. It has a lot of students.

And a lot of those are international students.

They come from all over the place and have any number of cultural assumptions and norms about learning, life as a student and interacting with their teachers.

Yesterday, a Chinese student gave me a gift. And I was not comfortable with either accepting or rejecting it.

Because of the large number of Chinese students in my classes, I've adapted my syllabus, changed readings, altered assignments and done quite a bit of reading about their cultural norms in academia as well as the research done on Chinese perspectives on my area of study. These are little alterations and not ones that disadvantage domestic students. No big deal.

But gifts... well gifts are a bit of a cultural minefield.

Traditionally, it's just not the done thing to take gifts from students. There are issues of power and influence there that make it a no-no. But we're also told to respect the cultural traditions of our students and where gift-giving is a tradition, where am I meant to stand?

One of my Chinese postgraduate students had recently returned from a visit home and asked to stop by to give me a small Chinese gift. I said okay, thinking it might be a card or a decorative coin or a red-stringed 'luck' or 'fortune' hanging thing-a-me (I have a few of those in my office already). But it wasn't a little gift at all but a blouse - a velvety, beaded, flowery, ruffly blouse.


Cue complete awkwardness.

I am not sure about the 'traditional' nature of this gift but I do know it feels entirely weird for a student to give me clothing. It is also a little weird to receive this particular item of clothing given I have never worn any item of clothing in her presence or elsewhere that is either velvety, beaded, flowery or ruffly. It's also on the *ahem* largish side.

I said thank-you, of course, but I am still thoroughly confused about the protocols here. I actually need to go and check the university policy on accepting gifts and whether I need to declare it to some authority or even if I need to return it.

What an awkward conversation that would be.

Have you had to navigate any cultural minefields in your line of work?


  1. Yes, a blouse seems a tad more intimate than a box of chocolates or a fortune hanging thingamajig. What a classic! A story to entertain your friends when they come over for dinner :-) Mel x

  2. LOL yep that's definitely awkward and I'd be heading to find that policy first thing Monday morning!
    As a nurse the cultural minefields are 30 miles wide, from understanding in some cultures the men speak for their women, to working with the idea in some European cultures that if someone is sick every 1st, 2nd and 3rd cousin as well as the family priest and the greengrocer will descend on one tiny hospital room and take up residence. Trying to get them all to leave so the poor patient can have a wee in private is an artform!

    1. Did check the policy and I only need to register the gift with the uni if it costs more than $200. I am assuming it didn't cost that much.

  3. This is such a tough one (even ignoring the fact that some random bought you a blouse, wtf cultural difference right there). I think I would have donned my teacher's hat and delivered a lesson on Australian cultural norms before saying, "I can't accept your kind gift, however I'm sure your grandmother would love it."


    1. Zing! Bahaha, I'm not sure I could deliver the Grandmother line with enough subtlety.


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