April 3, 2013

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Taiwanese childbirth tradition: Cakes and oily rice

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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  1. Hi, i am from Singapore.
    When i had my first child, we gave out the same :
    eggs, oily rice and cake.
    the cake has to be round shape, its a chinese tradition.

  2. Ugh - the idea of having given birth and wanting to rest and enjoy my baby/family and then having to receive visitors instead (as usual in many countries) ... is bad enough. And having to take so much care about appropriate presents is even worse. IMHO

  3. Hello,

    Congratulations to you and Lily on the baby becoming 1 month old!

    Either one sounds like a true Taiwanese... I grew up with the money-driven culture and was used to everyone calculating the monetary gain or loss of each occasion.

    Now I live in U.S. and haven't thought about this for many years! When I invite friends over and give them party gifts, I never thought about the money I spent because the friendship and gathering is priceless.

    Anyways I have to say that Taiwanese culture is truly unique! I wonder how many other countries would calculate monetary gain in each social occasion...

  4. Congratulations for your new-born baby and good luck for the future of your family. You seem to be very flexible in dealing with the customs of a different society, which is a good thing.

    @material girl

    I think that the monetary culture you refer to also exists in China and Japan. To be frank, I have never been able to get used to it. I try to respect different cultures as much as I can, but this sort of things are truly far away from my own standards, so while I don't condemn other people, I would definitely be unwilling to adjust myself to this way of thinking.

  5. I particularly don't like the custom of sending out bunch of invitations for wedding(or funeral,child birth,etc.), which including friends(those you want them to know about the news), and those so-so people to drum the number of Red Envelopes-because each recipient would feel obligated to sent a envelope with "prevailing rate". Some people can actually make a profit out of an event if they send out enough invitations. My in-laws was a low-ranking civil service worker and during a "bad month" they might receive several invitations and that really put a dent into their livelyhood, consider their meager salary at the time. Why couldn't they just ignored the "invitation" if they really can not afford them? Well, it's the social norm-"I sent you an invitation and you dare ignoring it, how insulting." This is one custom that I am glad that I am now 6000 miles away in the States.

  6. I have to say, the cake is big!

    I would call this a Chinese tradition. Malaysian Chinese is practicing the same culture, birth, wedding and death. Exception of the death, you don't have to return with monetary; a small towel, drinking water and a "Thank you" via local newspaper ads would suffice.

    However, we are actually more flexible but well, still weird. June and myself are ordering a 25 set of cake/ cupcake to be distributed to the colleague. These colleague only one of them are very close to us and have given my daughter an angpao (Hong Pao) and the boss who visit us bought a set of baby cloth. The remaining of 24 colleagues gives nothing in return. It's a culture here to at least show appreciation to the coworker or the colleague by giving them gifts but we expect nothing in return by the person who gave birth. (male site not necessary to do the same)

    The other flexible part is I don't have to buy all these set to the remaining of the people I want to "thank". All I have to do is prepare a buffet (can be a hotel or make it at home) and call on them to come by and makan (eat). That's it! Ofcoz some of them will still give us angpao but we really don't expect any return.

    Then again, some people do want to make money out of every celebration and that's part of morale and etiquette gone hire wire, not culture.

    In the old days, this culture is meant to help the new parent with necessity and like you have mentioned, for good fortune as well. Raising a newborn is a tough job and Chinese in China are poor. When the confinement finally ends, the new parent's parent would prepare the oily rice in a big wok and invite the villagers to come and celebrate.

    This culture have since gone through many layers of evolution and the current generation more or less confused and some abuse the culture for monetary gain.

  7. Firstly i wish you one big congratulations for daugher. God give her long and happy life.

    Ye, of course with our eyes these kind of tradition is nothing else than weird. As jong mentioned it was different in old days, people didnt have money to fallow expensive tradition. They do it today for sake of not losing face. I bet many taiwanese hate their ceremonies/traditions but keeping their thoughts quiet.

    Somehow i was suprised how money oriented are values of taiwanese people, but that must be a modern phenomenon. Maybe we are not obsessed with money so much cause time has stopped here 30 years ago)))

    Sometimes am playing with idea to move to taiwan to enjoy life with my taiwanese girfriend but than fastly stop cause of all things, which would make go crazy from air pollution to adjusting to their culture.

    Here, only close friends would make a visit, bringing some small gifts and i would put wine and sausages on table to have easy talking. And is not about gifts, is about socializing, shoving good will and empathy.

    Even i dont know you personal i admire you being, workin and livin in taiwan. As you wrote somewhere, you need to eat part of yourself and become a different person to survive in foreign environment. Only people with a lot of love and strenght can do it.

    Keep up with your blog, it is always fascinating to read about taiwanese culture. I love it

  8. @Lily: Well, in Taipei cake can be modern and therefore squarish. There are round cakes as well, some prefer to give them. Greetings to Singapore

    @Alcessa: To put it mildly: It's very challenging. Thank god with every week it's becoming better. I can't wait for the first 3 months to be over...

    @material girl: This money calculating is a huge challenge for me, because just like in the US we in Slovenia don't do that. There is never a ROI in people's mind if they get gifts or give gifts. I've heard it's similar in Japan, but that doesn't make it any better.

    @Aris Teon: Thank you.

    @DesertFox: I completely agree with you. Sometimes Taiwanese complicate things so much just because they feel the need to follow a tradition or care about the face. It baffles me every time I see it, but I just follow, it's the best way to do... sadly.

    @JONG: Thanks for your great comment! You are spot on about how the original meaning of these celebrations got lost in modern times and people focus more about the money. I'm glad that you found a better way to deal with it.

    @david: Thanks for your kind words and for sharing your thoughts on this.

  9. it is a mixed blessing isn't it. You really do have to build up a store of Karma...it creates a lot of social pressure at a time when you could do with none. I quite like the modern thinking of the manager who gave cakes to share. It was pragmatic and logical. He must have had great confidence to set a different trend.

    If a child is given money here, it usually is placed in a savings account in the child's name. Special gifts belong to the child. Thank you cards may be sent for present that arrive in the post, in the fullness of time.

    C'est la vie.


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