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.