George Bao felt like a rich man the first time he flew back to China from America.
He had so many gifts for his family and friends, he was lugging eight cardboard boxes in addition to his suitcase. That was in the 1980s, when flights weren't crowded. The airline didn't even charge him for the extra luggage.
As for what the gifts were, the memory makes him laugh. He had brought secondhand clothes scavenged from yard sales.
"My father was so happy," said Bao, who watched the elderly farmer put on his first Western suit, beaming even though it didn't fit well. "China had nothing back then. Anything I brought back from the States was considered special."
Times have changed. Living standards in China have risen fast — especially in the wealthier coastal areas. Hand-me-downs from the U.S. will no longer do.
And now that China has transformed itself from communist backwater to manufacturing powerhouse, it's not so much what the gift is but where it comes from that matters, said Bao.
"They may not all speak English, but everyone in China recognizes those three words," he said. "When they see the label 'Made in China,' they will think, 'How come you gave me this?' "
These days, in other words, buying gifts to take to China is a major headache for Chinese Americans.
"It really does consume people when they make preparations to go back to China," said Clayton Dube, associate director of the U.S.-China Institute at USC.
Like many visitors to China in the 1980s, Dube knew just what to get his in-laws. He bought a Japanese color TV in Hong Kong, then a British colony, and lugged it on and off trains and buses to their home in mainland China. Back then, televisions, refrigerators and washing machines were luxury items. Few Chinese families could afford them.
Now all manner of electronics are abundantly available in China, but giving remains important.
"People can't imagine going back to China without bringing something," said Dube. "The gift is part of the ritual."
Summer is peak season for travel to China. And although gift-giving options have dwindled, there are some safe choices. American-made nutritional supplements — multivitamins, fish oil, cod liver oil, gingko extract and ginseng root — are popular.
"I always run into people in the same aisles shopping for health supplements before going back to China," said Jin Ma of Irvine, who heads to Costco to pick up large bottles of colorful, chewable multivitamins.
She used to take Nike shoes, which were rare and prized.
"Now it would be so tacky," said Ma, "because we have so many more styles and choices right there in China."
Health-related gifts came into vogue in recent years amid a slew of scandals surrounding tainted food in China. Their popularity also is a sign of rising living standards and health consciousness.
"In the old days, they didn't have enough food to eat. What are they going to do with ginseng?" said Bao, who picked up boxes of the dried root for his 82-year-old mother from Ginseng Mark Inc., located in an Arcadia strip mall that caters to those bound for China.
Among the most prized are roots grown in Wisconsin — packaged in boxes that say "American" and feature the U.S. flag.
Foreign cosmetics — such as Lancôme and Clinique, drugstore body lotions, even lip balm — also are welcome gifts, as long as they're not made in China.
Those still scratching their heads can find company on the Web, in Chinese American chat rooms focused on gift ideas. Many of the suggestions are for American food: dried cranberries or blueberries, pistachios or macadamia nuts, chewing gum and big jars of strawberry jam and honey.
One person who goes by the screen name "Mrs. LA" offered a long list of possibilities on ChineseInLA.com: cordless phones, electric razors, Zippo lighters, blood-pressure monitors — all made in America, of course.
Mrs. LA also suggested "Greetings from America" stamps from each state, collections of state quarters and $2 bills showing the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
"The most frustrating thing for me was figuring out what to give to people. It nearly ruined my trip," wrote Mrs. LA.
While frequent travelers are familiar with the parameters of what to give and what not to give, others had to learn the hard way.
"The village people now have money in their pockets. Many of them have only one child and they can't wait to spoil them," said Bao, who recalls getting awkward looks after he gave people dresses that had been his daughter's. "My brother took me aside and told me people don't need this stuff anymore. If you can't afford something nice, maybe you should just not bring anything at all."
Embarrassed, Bao, a veteran reporter for Chinese-language newspapers, started handing out $100 bills to the children of his immediate family members.
Yunxiang Yan is an anthropology professor from UCLA who has written extensively about gift-giving in Chinese culture. But even for him, figuring out what to take has become so overwhelming that he now chooses not to give any gifts.
"One reason I don't give gifts is because I go back so frequently, a couple of times a year," said Yan. "We are living in a shrinking global village with increased communication and traveling. Now, going to China is like visiting a next-door neighbor who lives a similar lifestyle. So there is no more need."