Korean Gift-Giving

I first began learning about Korean gift-giving from my elementary school students in 2010, when I was their English conversation teacher. They would come running into my office at all hours, “Teacher, teacher! For you!” There never had to be an occasion. They would bring me gifts just because. Most of the time, it would be food. “For your health!,” they’d say, shoving a yogurt at me, or “breakfast,” handing me a warm bun they’d just purchased on their way to school. Sometimes the gifts were not necessarily wanted, like when they’d come from behind and surprise me with a grimy handful of shrimp chips, straight into my mouth, but their intention was always so kind. “Wow, I must be the best teacher ever!,” I’d pat myself on the back, “These kids love me! Look at all these gifts!”

Later, I (sadly) learned that I definitely was not special. Everyone got that treatment and not only at school/work. As I started to make friends in Korea, I really noticed how generous everyone was. I rarely paid for any meals, despite my insisting. “My treat!,” they would say, sometimes footing the tab for a table-full of hungry mouths. I knew these people weren’t rich, but they happily gave so generously. It was quite humbling.

Things got really serious when I was reunited with my birth family and the generosity started to become uncomfortable. The first weekend we met, my 아빠 Appa took me to an expensive mall and wouldn’t let me leave before I picked out a handbag and a pair of shoes. I begged him not to buy me anything, but he insisted. My cousins were there and I eventually made them choose for me because I didn’t need anything. They chose the most popular styles at the time and 아빠 Appa paid a pretty penny at checkout. “He always wanted to buy bags and shoes for his daughter,” they said.

I hoped the novelty would die down and eventually things would be “normal,” i.e. I wouldn’t be surprised with lavish gifts at every turn. It never died down. As I continued meeting more family members, the chaos escalated. Aunts and grandmas were always shoving money at me, hundreds of dollars at a time. It became comedic, at times. I remember one aunt who was so overwhelmed by my reunion with the family, she wanted to make some huge gesture to show me how happy she was. She didn’t know anything about me or what I liked so she decided that fruit would be a safe bet. The first time we met, she cried and hugged me, then presented me with three giant crates of grapes. She must have completely emptied out her local market. There were pounds and pounds and pounds of grapes. We could barely fit them in the family car. What in the world would I do with all that?! I had to accept it, but left most of the grapes at my birth family’s home in 서울 Seoul and took just a few bags back to my apartment in 천안 Cheonan for the work week.

Instead of the gifts becoming fewer, both the frequency and price seemed to increase. Most of you have already read about The North Face incident, where I pitched a fit in the middle of the mall and caused a huge embarrassing scene over a coat. Not long after that, my family decided I was going to have Lasik eye surgery at an expensive hospital in 명동 Myeong-dong. Yes, they decided; I didn’t have a choice in the matter. (More on this in Becoming Grandmother, Part II.) 엄마 Omma said my terrible eyesight was genetic and she wanted to try to correct it for me.

I began to dread visiting my family because every weekend, there was some new expensive “thing” that I didn’t want or need. I had cried and yelled and thrown temper tantrums, but nobody seemed to care that I did want all of these expensive gifts. My fellow English teacher friends didn’t get it – they thought it sounded awesome to have a long-lost family lavishing presents upon me all the time. I didn’t know how to handle it. I felt guilty for accepting, like a failure for always “giving in” when my refusals were ignored, pressured to accept so my family could feel better – like they were making up for lost time, ungrateful for feeling so “yucky” about the whole thing. It was disastrous.

But the more time I spent with them, the more I began to understand. And then the more I began to observe. It was not only me. I saw really generous gestures between all of our family members. Aunts to my cousins, uncles to my grandma. I began to learn about how the Korean culture functioned and how the family unit works. Then I felt really stupid for the way I had acted about the coat and the surgery and everything else. When I was trying to say, “No, no, no,” they must have just heard me as a big brat. Because in Korea, families just take care of each other. And when it’s your time to receive, you gratefully receive. And when a family member is in need, you just give. Period. I wish someone would have taught me that before my reunion. It could have saved me a lot of anguish!

Have you experienced this type of uncomfortable generosity in Korea? How did you deal with it?

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