Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Must be Chuseok! Order your Spam Set.

this is from a twitter post posted by a facebook friend...


One of the charms of Korean holiday culture is the gift giving culture: for a while I thought it was dumb, or lame, or stupid, that Koreans give each other toothpaste, spam, and olive oil sets for chusok, but now I just think it's goofy and funny.

Now, the spam might well hearken back to Korea's post-war poverty, a time when the US Military saw to it there was lots of military issue spam in the country, but it was mostly a luxury item for impoverished Koreans.  Some foods, for example budaejigae, came out of that period, and are frankly, some of Korea's best down home lunches, regardless of whether Korean food promotion is proud or ashamed of that period of post-war poverty.  I'll take a good old homey budaejigae over a pretentious boutique cafe lunch any day.

One year, my boss gave every foreign staff member (and every foreign Korean staff member) huge boxes of spam.  None of us knew what to do with it: none of us used spam in our cooking, none of us particularly liked spam.  We had to sign our spam sets out with the front desk; some of us never claimed one, and a few of us left them in the staff room for months before getting rid of them.  We mostly re-gifted them, and we kept one around, to set it up beside our computer monitor, so that it blocked the glare on the computer monitor between 10 and 11 am, when the sun shone in the window.   Were we being passive-aggressive?  Perhaps... but for seollal, our bosses gave us bottles of wine instead, which we actually used.  Another boss gave cash.  That was the best, and if any of my readers are Koreans, thinking of gifts for your foreign friends, cash or gift certificates are probably the perfunctory gifts we'll appreciate most.

The interesting thing, to me, is how in my anecdotal experience, it's so totally acceptable to give out a basically thoughtless gift here.  I asked Wifeoseyo and she said the same: It's just the giving of the gift that matters.  Everybody knows it's perfunctory gift anyway, and there seems to be an unspoken agreement to just be OK with that.  When I give a gift to Wifeoseyo, I want to think about her style, her taste, what she needs, what she expects, and what will make her feel happy: I spend a lot of time thinking about possible gifts, and even writing down in my pocketbook ideas that would make her happy, come gift-giving time.  Making scrapbooks, remembering old conversations, stuff like that.

I talked to an older lady (and yeah, this is generational), and she said, point blank, that she'd rather her husband just gave her cash for her birthday, so she could get what she wanted.  Weddings are the same: people give envelopes of cash on wedding days, and used to give cash to teachers as well - the white envelope culture works here, and again, wedding couples generally just agree to be OK with the way wedding halls sometimes even have a cash machine in the lobby, so that you don't even have to plan at all - just show up at the wedding hall with a bank card.

Do people in North America give thoughtless, perfunctory gifts?  Sure.  Ever got a box of chocolates for valentines day?  My Dad is a pastor, and pastors get a lot of perfunctory boxes of chocolate and christmas cake and pastries, come Christmas.  Back home, people give thoughtless gifts too.  Here, it seems like people don't even try.

So... do the Koreans you know feel embarrassed at all about giving cash, or olive oil, or toothpaste, to even close relatives, or is everybody still openly OK with it (even if they quietly bring it home and go "what the HELL am I going to do with twelve kilograms of spam?")

And what have you observed the younger generation do on gift-obligatory times?  Are young people also scooping up boxes of spam?  Have the types of perfunctory gift changed, though the gifting culture hasn't, or are things totally different now?  Is re-gifting OK, so long as it's done discreetly, the way we replace the cards on Christmas cake and pass it along, back home?

Talk amongst yourselves.

14 comments:

holterbarbour said...

You have kick-ass facebook friends.

Roboseyo said...

You ain't lying.

Breda said...

Hooray for budaejjigae! It originated in my adopted hometown, Uijeongbu.

조안나 said...

I still have most of the spam I got at seollal... time to make some budae jjigae before chuseok comes and I wind up with more -_-

Caryn Ouwehand said...

Oooh yeah, but see, Christmas Cake should never ACTUALLY be consumed. I think you are supposed to keep passing it along until it is too stale to stick a knife into and then the last recipient has no choice but to throw it out...

Now spam on the other hand. I suppose you could just pass that along... but unfortunately it will never go stale per se.

The Seoul Searcher said...

I usually regift the SPAM to whoever. I hate SPAM so much. It's the nastiest meat product there is. People say that in budaejigae it's Ok, which might be true.

The other gifts? Why bother complaining about toothpaste, shampoo, soap, wine, cheese, cooking oil, or any other product that is useful. Just use it. Think, you might not need to buy toothpaste for another 6 months. Isn't that great?

Roboseyo said...

It's not the usefulness of the gift, SS, it's the fact my mother-in-law may will have picked it up at the 7-11 between the subway station and my house, and that's the sum total of the thought she gave my gift.

Rhaulian said...

I believe that it is just part of the culture. An interesting conversation transpired between my wife and I the other day. We have been married for just more than a year now and not once have we been to see her family living outside of the Seoul area. It just occurred to me the other day that we hadn't and I asked why. I said, "Do you have a problem with those people? Is there a reason we don't visit your grandparents?" At first she gave me a shrugged shoulder and said, "I don't know". But later the truth came out and she said that it is because it would cost us too much money to go. We would have to buy all the cousins, Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents (they all live in the same town) something when we go. I thought it was a bit weird. I would think that her family would understand that we don't have the cash to get everyone a gift. She said that they would understand but that it would be uncomfortable for her, and that in the future it might come to bite us in the butt if in the future there is any family infighting. To me, it is unfortunate that we cannot enjoy each others' company due to this gift giving culture. Anyway... my rant is finished.

chiam said...

To be honest, I'd never eaten spam before coming to Korea. I eat it about once a week now. It's an easy side dish. You don't need to eat the whole can in one sitting, and having a couple of pieces of spam with the kimchi's, kim, beans, and other easy side dishes I put out at meals is alright. I can't imagine making a spamwich or anything like that, but see, spam is ok in Korea because it's eaten, like most things, in moderation.

I've often picked up a gift before heading to someones house; especially family. Never has anyone not been happy with the box of kim I bring.

Also, I think you give "gift giving in the west" too much credit. I think people around the world put about as much thought in to gift giving as anyone else. The older you get, the less fun it is to buy gifts.

Gift boxes in Korea are practical items that can actually be used. Most "gifty" things in the west are useless and are used and then thrown away. At least their consumed here.

Anonymous said...

Gift giving in Korea isn't as thoughtless as you say. When I moved into our new apartment my relatives brought very useful things such as tissue, toilet paper, cleaning products, laundry detergent. When you set up house people are supposed to bring gifts that turn into a big bubbly explosion such as soaps and detergents, as it symbolizes the hope that what you have will multiply and become bountiful.

Gomushin Girl said...

There's also a cultural difference to remember: Koreans, by and large, give practical gifts that can be used on an everyday basis. Shampoo, soap, olive oil, and even spam are things we need on a consistent basis. Toilet paper will not go to waste, no matter what. Only the most resolute of hermits can't use a gift of cash. You give gifts that the recipient (or at least who ever they regift to) will be able to use, guaranteed.
In the west, gifts are luxury items. Books, perfume, games . . . all entertaining things. The idea is that we give and recieve gifts that are "special" and often things we're reluctant to buy for ourselves. In Korea, you recieve gifts you can use and buy your own luxuries, and in the west you give luxury items on the assumption that they'll buy their own toilet paper.
Also, the kinds of gift sets we give and recieve at Chuseok and New Years are symbollic presents given to a wide number of people to represent social ties. Getting or recieving a Chuseok gift isn't a special celebration of you as a person - it's a representation of the relationship. But on these occassions, there's too many relationships to be reflected by personalized gift giving. You give spam to everybody who works for you and olive oil to all your relatives. These are big holidays with lots of people to acknowledge. But on days of personal importance, like birthdays, Koreans are every bit as likely to give gifts that show a personal, particular tie of affection.

3gyupsal said...

Let me make it clear. Money at weddings is awesome. If you have been to one or two Korean weddings, you basically get the jist. I don't care for the whole wedding hall experience so it is nice to just get in, say hi, drop off an envelope of money, and get out.

Roboseyo said...

anon: you're right that the gifts are usually useful (except that I personally never cook with spam); Gomushin Girl, you're right that the gifts ARE more a recognition of the relationship - like Christmas Cards and form letters, I guess. And yeah, 3gyup, cash at weddings is nice, especially since wedding venues are so expensive here... but you can't look at cash 20 years from now and think "3gyupsal gave that to us for our wedding"

Roboseyo said...

That is pretty expensive. not that cheap here either come to think of it. God I love SPAM