Lucky you, you're off to Beijing, perhaps a well-earned perk of slaving away on a CPG you once thought you wouldn't touch with a ten-foot vaulting pole. Wish I was going with you, sigh. (Hey, not too late, need a translator? my bags are packed!)
As someone who's been lucky to enjoy several opportunities to visit China and to witness its stunning cultural (and consumer) evolution since 1982…two words of advice: bring loot. Lots of it. Day to day China runs on a gift economy. Translators, concierges, drivers, guides all expect booty, and, though they won't mention anything, so do your hosts, but forget Tiffany keychains or pricey Polo shirts--counterfeits can be had over there for a song and recipients won't appreciate the subtle difference between real and fake. What they will appreciate are things you'd never think to take, things you might be insulted to receive yourself:
bottle of multivitamins (Centrum and Costco are favorite brands) Yes, there are supplements in China, but lots of counterfeits, so people prefer vitamins bought overseas.What NOT to give:
deodorants--still hard to find in China and (as you'll soon realize) largely ineffective
American ginseng (for some reason it's considered a more premium variety--here's a website to buy it
moisturizers--don't waste money on La Mer, most appreciated are "famous" drug store brands like Pond's and Oil of Olay.
Ditto cosmetics--preferred brand is Clinique.
"typical" American sweets and treats like maple syrup, salt water toffee, Sour Patch kids, California Raisins, Jelly Bellies. And peanut butter.
Lots of smokers in China, a habit you may not want to encourage, but smokes are appreciated. Ironically, American cigs are readily available and cheaper over there than most good Chinese brands (tobacco media bucks shunned here flood overseas markets) so pick up Zhong Hua cigarettes in duty free…or bring cigars instead. (Davidoff is a good brand)
calendars with photos of your hometown (especially if your hometown is a "famous" brand like New York or Toronto)
CDs with music that is considered American - blues, jazz, gospel
If you're looking to impress a host or bribe an official for something really big--MP3, IPOD, USB stick, digital camera. Even though a lot of these items are made in China, they're quite a bit cheaper over here and the Chinese may be the only people in the world who still associate the US with quality.
scissors, knives or other cutting utensils (unless you wish to indicate intention to sever your relationship)
clocks, handkerchiefs, flowers or straw sandals (these are associated with funerals, death)
anything with the number four (considered unlucky number--for this reason, don't give four of anything)
And you should know: When giving a gift (or even a business card), don't be barbarian. Always present (and receive) card or gift with both hands. To do otherwise shows extreme lack of respect. Polite people generally don't open gifts when they receive them, and if they are old-school, may refuse gifts three times before accepting them. No need for wrapping, Chinese generally present gifts au naturel, or in a bag--but if you do wrap, don't use white, blue or black paper.
And that's all for today from your Sinophile Emily Post.