Wednesday, April 03, 2013

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Taiwanese childbirth tradition: Cakes and oily rice

4/03/2013 Taiwan Explorer
This is a set which inlcudes a cake, two eggs and two boxes of oily rice.

In Taiwan it's customary that when a woman gives birth her relatives, friends, former classmates, and colleagues pay her a visit at home to see the baby (usually during the so called "zuo yuezi period"). It's meant as a gesture of kindness, and it's part of the post-natal experience for most Taiwanese women. Usually these visitors will bring gifts such as toys, baby clothes, diapers, and sometimes things for the mother like nutritional supplements. It depends from person to person what they will give you, but most visitors will feel compelled to give you something. Some of them however choose to give red envelops (紅包, also called hong bao) instead of practical gifts. These contain money, and are meant as a blessing for the baby, given in hope to bring good fortune to the new addition to the family. Red envelops are also customary at other celebrations like Lunar New Year or wedding banquets. This is all nice and fine you might think, but there is a catch. Every gift comes with a debt: You have to reciprocate the kindness as quick as possible by giving a gift in return, it's a sign of appreciation. Just like most of traditions in Taiwan the re-gifting is more or less standardized. Everyone who gave a valuable gift or money in a red envelope is supposed to get a cake (蛋糕) or sesame oil chicken (麻油雞) in return, if the baby is a girl, and oily rice (油飯), if the baby is a boy. Usually the oily rice will come with two eggs and a chicken thigh (guess what is the symbolism behind that? You guessed right).

This is a box of oily rice.

A real-life example

Here's an example to show what this means in reality: If five friends come to visit, and each one of them gives you 600 NTD (around 15 Eur), you have to give a cake (or oily rice) to each one of them of a value of at least 200 NTD (5 Eur), but a more expensive cake is better, if you want to be overly polite. So when you deduct the cost of the cake, you actually get 400 NTD (10 Eur) or less per person, sometimes not even half of the money that you actually received in the hongbao. That is an unwritten rule, I have no idea how that came to be, but that's how it is. In my country this would be quite an unusual way of thinking. When we give gifts we don't expect that people go to such great lengths to show appreciation, a simple thank you is fully sufficient for us in most cases.

Possible complications

Of course these kind of things don't always come without complications. Here's one example from a forum, that highlights how split people are on what is proper etiquette here, and how often one can make an unintentional faux pas:

A woman complained that her colleague, who just became father, had no manners. Her department of 5 people gave him hongbao of 500 NTD each (that makes 2500 NTD all together, which is only about 65 Eur). She says people usually give 300 NTD per person, but because the manager gave 500 NTD, all of them felt compelled to follow (which is quite typical in Taiwan). But what upset her was the fact that the colleague only gave 3 cakes to all of them in return, asking them to share among each other. She felt he had no manners, and believed he wanted to make profit from the money instead of following the proper etiquette where everyone who gave money in the red envelope shall receive their own cake. She said when she had the baby, and people gave her money, she also bought oily rice for everyone.

People who replied on the thread can be put in two groups:

1. The ones who agreed with her, and said he was rude, and should have given everyone a cake.
2. Those who asked, if this is about the blessing of a newborn child or is it about the cake?

The latter is exactly the question I have asked myself when I heard about this custom for the first time. Obviously a lot of young Taiwanese are split on the issue, and it doesn't surprise me. Despite what one might perceive as a very uniformed and homogenous society, Taiwanese are generally divided on many traditions: Some like to tightly hold on to them, while others question them, or adjust them so that they fit into modern times. If you're a foreigner living in Taiwan, it's better to follow customs like this one (even though some Taiwanese might not expect that of you), because it will give you a better understanding of the society you chose to live in, and the connections you make with people might be a valuable asset in the future.

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