Why NOT to buy shoes for your Taiwanese significant other

I’m useless at trying to get gifts for people.  Mostly because I never cared to put in the effort it takes to get a “great” gift.  I usually settle for a gift certificate, money or booze – all of which are usually well recieved and require no thought on my part.  They hit the bar of acceptable, but never vault into the realm of exceptional.  This was one of the things I’d resolved to work on – stop being a thoughtless bastard, and start putting effort and caring into gift selection.

I had the opportunity to do this sometime last year when I was looking for a gift for my Taiwanese girlfriend’s birthday.  Ok…hmmm…what to get her?  Mass media had given me a concrete idea of what women like.  Purses, jewelry, shoes, make-up….stuff like that.  And of course, mass media is never wrong, so I was on the right track.

I decided on shoes for the following reasons:

  1. I have no idea what a suitable purse would be…they all look big, bulky and inconvenient.
  2. Jewelry is damn expensive.  I was not in a position to get something nice, and I didn’t want to get something tacky and cheap.
  3. Make-up – again no idea what kind to get, and also it doesn’t last as long.
  4. I can tell which shoes look good, which look bad, and more importantly, I’d innocently asked her what kinds of shoes she liked when we were out before, so I had an idea of what she wanted.  Something like this:

So I went and picked up a nice pair of boots.  Got them all wrapped up and with a preening smile, presented them to her on the special day.  As she opened the package, I stood there, like a triumphant conqueror – absolute in my knowledge that this well thought out and excellently executed “gift mission” would win me some serious brownie points!

“Oh…shoes…” not exactly what I’d anticipated.

“Yeah, do you like them?”

“Yes…”  Then she asked me if I wanted to break up with her.  When I said no, she gave me a Taiwanese dollar (30 NT = $1 US).  The confusion must have been plainly apparent on my face, so she laughed and proceeded to explain.

In Taiwan giving someone footwear can indicate that you wish them bad luck and want them to walk away.  Here’s why:

The Chinese character for “shoe” is 鞋.  It’s pronounced “xie” (shee-yea) with a rising tone – like asking a question – sheeyea?  The Chinese character for “evil” is 邪.  It’s also pronounced the same way.  Because of this closeness, shoes are seen as an ill choice of gift.  In addition, there is Chinese proverb (I couldn’t find it) that states “giving shoes to lovers will set them apart” – or something to that effect.

So, in giving shoes to my girlfriend, I was literally wishing evil upon her head and telling her to get lost.

But there is a way to get around this, and that’s where the NT 1 comes in.  By giving me that token amount of money, she bought the shoes from me, thus negating all the bad luck and evil sentiments previously present, and now the gift is pure.  And I get my brownie points.

Now I wonder if this would work the other way.  If I wanted to break up with someone – fast – do I buy them running shoes and refuse the money?  Would be a great system if it worked.  The cost of the shoes would be well worth avoiding the mess and general unpleasantness that accompanies a break up.  And the jilted party would have a nice going away gift to ease the pain.  Hmmmm…worth following-up on.

I looked into other gifts to avoid, and found these:

  1. Clocks or watches.  They symbolize time running out; a bad omen for any relationship.  So I guess I’ll have to buy that Rolex myself.
  2. Knives or other sharp objects.  Symbolize cutting ties.  Not sure I would buy something like that anyway.
  3. Umbrellas or fans.  They sound similar to “scatter” or “lose” – again a negative omen.  In fact, even offering the use of an umbrella is not seen favourably.  You must share the umbrella if it’s raining mostly cover her while getting wet until you reach your destination, then take your umbrella with you.

It has to be pointed out that these are traditional customs.  I’m not sure if they are still prevalent in the cities – what with the rampant westernization and all – but it’s good to keep them in mind.  Especially when dealing with a culture as vastly different and traditionally conservative as this one.

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