Stories of crossing into Canada: The wedding

When I cross the border into Canada, there's almost always a story. Rarely is there an uneventful crossing.

In 2007, I attended a wedding in Vancouver, BC, and here's how the conversation went at the border crossing into Canada:

Me: Good morning. (As I hand over passports and green cards for everybody in the car.)

Border guard: Hello. What is the purpose of your visit?

Me: A wedding.

Border guard: How long will you be in Canada? (Looks over the documents and compares the faces against the people in the car.)

Me: Just one day.

Border guard: Bringing any gifts?

I didn't bring any gifts (in the traditional Western sense), but maybe the other guests did. I look to the passenger sitting next to me.

Passenger: No.

Border guard: No gifts?

Passenger: Just hong bao. Red envelopes with money.

The border guard is by now completely confused and gives us a look like, "Didn't your mother teach you anything? You're showing up at a wedding empty-handed? Well, it's too late now. I'm certainly not going to try to teach you proper manners. You're on your own."

Border guard: (Hands us our papers and waves us through.) All right.

Vancouver has a large Chinese community, the largest in all of Canada. About ten percent of the B.C. population is ethnic Chinese, and Mandarin and Cantonese are the mother tongues in 30 percent of Vancouver homes. This was a relative young person, so who knows, maybe the border guard was new on the job. But you'd think that even after just one summer working the Canadian border near Vancouver, the guard would have encountered at least a few red envelopes by now.

Bonus chatter: One of my friends often visits her family in Canada for birthdays and other family events. When she does so, she buys the gift in Canada or has some other plan that avoids having to carry the gift across the border. The conversation at the border is similar to the one I described above, where the border guard asks if she is bringing any gifts, and she answers that she isn't. My friend figures that in a database somewhere in the Ministry of Public Safety, they have a record on her that simply reads, "Cheapskate."

[Raymond is currently away; this message was pre-recorded.]

Comments (19)
  1. Spike says:

    I wonder what this Canadian obsession is with gifts then?

    I was flying in to Toronto once and the girl on Immigration asked the reason for my visit.  "I’m just paying a visit to my girlfriend" I answered.

    "Have you brought any gifts?" She enquired.

    "No." I said.

    "You’ll be in trouble!" She exclaimed.

    And she was right.

  2. Nathan_works says:

    From a western perspective, those red envelopes look like a colossal mine-field best avoided.. I’m sure CA has similar laws like the US about carrying currency across the border. Best be careful with large sums of cash..

  3. mjb says:
    1. Well, here we run into cultural diffs. I mean money is a gift. The person answering could have said "No goods, just money".

    2. If it’s like the US, you can bring up to $10,000 without declaring anything.

  4. Mark Baker says:

    Isn’t the normal procedure for weddings to go online to whichever department store the couple have their wedding list with, pick something from the list and hand over your credit card details? I wouldn’t expect to ever see the gifts I give someone, at least not until I next visit the couple.

    I can’t remember exactly how it worked before the internet, but it was basically the same thing except by phone or by going to the store in person.

    I actually think buying a gift yourself is potentially better, because it lets you choose something interesting, and it lets you buy it from a local shop, but it’s definitely not the normal procedure, at least round here.

  5. Kzinti says:

    The obsession with gifts at the border comes from customs laws. Any gift over a certain amount ($100 IIRC) is taxable. That’s why they ask you every time.

    Red envelopes usually get to Vancouver trough the airport, not the US border.

  6. I suspect that look is less "you have no manners" and more "I know you’re lying to try and avoid customs duties, but I don’t feel like searching your car".

  7. Igor Levicki says:

    Have you thought of a possibility that they have to ask whether you are carrying gifts because they have to inspect them? For example it may be illegal to bring the food in.

  8. xfo says:

    "Have you thought of a possibility that they have to ask whether you are carrying gifts because they have to inspect them? For example it may be illegal to bring the food in."

    If its illegal to bring food in, they would just ask if they were bringing any food, rather than abstract it to gifts to be more polite.

    Allowing illegal items by mistake is a greater risk than appearing rude. (But hey its Canadians we’re talking aboot here – sorry had to put that in :D )

  9. Mark W says:

    Funny, we Vancouverites often share war stories about being interrogated by US custom officials. :-)

    From what I know they are going after tax.  AFAIK, a tourist can bring as many gifts as you like as long as the value of each gift is below $60.  Otherwise the gift is subject to GST.  That’s why it is a standard question.  See here for more info:

  10. Tyler says:

    My elementary school had a large Chinese population (most of my friends were, too), so those red envelopes make total and complete sense to me.

    I can’t imagine what someone who didn’t grow up around them might think, though, or someone who doesn’t understand the thing with Chinese weddings.  They probably think it’s crass or something.  I kind of wish the idea would catch on more generally, but I imagine the retail silverware and appliances markets would cry foul.

  11. Yuhong Bao says:

    "just hong bao"

    Hey, that is part of my name!

  12. Worf says:

    I think the deal is that giving a gift of money to celebrate something is considered tacky in many Western cultures. It signals the giver took the easy way out instead of trying to appear thoughtful. If requested on the invite, it too signals tacky, for it implies that the host won’t be satisfied with what anyone brings them.

    The Chinese, though, have lots of ceremonies with red packets in which money is given. A culture clash, really.

  13. ::Wendy:: says:

    I have to admire the scrutable custom officer’s ability to convey complex thought processes without saying a word.

  14. Miles Archer says:

    I dare you to tell the Canucks that you’re giving a Glock 9 as a gift. ;-)

  15. Jeffrey L. Whitledge says:

    Bringing gifts to a wedding is poor etiquette. It would be something else for the family to keep track of. Gifts are properly given at the shower some weeks earlier.

    I am quite surprised that the border guard has not read Emily Post.

  16. jcs says:

    Jeffrey: Then, what do you do in the situation where you’re a single man attending the wedding, and therefore did not attend the bridal shower?

  17. Peter says:

    Jeffrey: Not bringing a gift to a wedding where they’re expected is poor etiquette. And bridal showers are very much a North American thing.

    The ‘just bring cash’ approach seems to be becoming more popular now (or maybe it’s just my friends?). Seems these days people already have plenty of "things" but could do with more money to pay for the mortgage/honeymoon/whatever…

  18. Cheong says:

    In Hong Kong, many people use a special type of "red envelope" named "禮封" for wedding. You can buy them at bank counters, often at no extra charge if you have bank account(s) there.

    The package contains a standard red envelope that have place to leave your name. plus a "bank certificate" of the face value printed on it. You may think it as a "red envelope" + "prepaid cheque" package. Using this, you won’t need to bring lots of cash out, and others who attend the wedding won’t be able to guess how much money you put in there by the appearence. :P

    You’re expected to hand out this or the normal kind of red envelope at "wedding dinner". This kind of "bank certificate" is recognized by most Chinese restaurants here, so the wedding couple can use it to pay the wedding dinner bills directly. (While those restaurants may not accept cheques, as they won’t be sure if the cheques are payable)

  19. william says:

    Red pockets/禮券 are considered to be the de facto standard to most Chinese style wedding here in Hong Kong. You should be able to buy it at any local bank and I think that only the account holders of those so called ‘premium’ accounts could be waived of those service charges of the banks.

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