There is an etiquette in China: the first time you see a baby, you give them money. Depending on your means, or how much you like the parents, it can be anywhere from 10 dollars to two hundred.
My husband and I live in Beijing. Last April we took our two older children and our new baby back to my husband’s hometown in central China. His father was dying of cancer, and we wanted him to meet the baby before leaving us.
Xianyang is a city steeped in filth and history, the former seat of emperors. Coming home with a new baby, it was our duty to make the rounds to all the aunts and uncles. One day we arrived at the government condo of some relatives. They live in—what is for Xianyang—a high style, with their own yard, a grape arbor, and sleek marble floors. The elders held the baby in their arms and sighed,
“Aiya! It’s the hardest thing in the world to look after small children!”
Back in the car my husband and I smiled and shrugged; for all their sighing, they had made no gifts. Knowing their love of money, we hadn’t expected them to.
We climbed the hospital stairs. Second cousins of my father in law, a husband and wife from the countryside, sat by his bed making small talk. They stood and welcomed us, fascinated by our half-Chinese children. My father in law lay quiet and resigned. I held the baby above him and he looked at her in wonder. They made baby talk together.
Our two older children were antsy and we decided it was time to go to the hotel. One cousin was fiddling behind his threadbare jacket, hiding something from view. Suddenly I noticed in my eldest daughter’s hand: money, one bill for each child. My husband and I immediately remonstrated. It was a horrible feeling: I did not want to accept those weathered bills. The amount added up to about twenty five dollars, a few months’ salary to a farmer. And they had given to all three children, when etiquette only dictated that they give to the new baby.
My husband and the cousin wrestled back and forth. “It’s for the kids!” he said. “Buy them new clothes or shoes, buy them food they like to eat.”
We gave up. There was no returning the money without hurting their feelings. In the hospital parking lot, we offered them the vacuum packed Peking duck we had in our trunk, worth about twelve dollars. At least it was something. We waved good-bye.
When the people who can least afford to give, give the most—that’s when I remember what I used to think when my husband and I were at our poorest: that having no money forces on you a stark vision of the wealth you carry inside. And when once that wealth has been tallied, there’s nothing to stop you from being generous.