Sunday, October 2, 2011

Gift Giving

Gizmo Gifts
My husband has a tendency to give me electronic gizmos- iPod, aromatherapy infuser, bread machine. I would pine for jewelry. I had a friend, Farrah, as in Farrah Fawcett, she was tall, blonde, and had great hair of course. She was the kind of person who answered the door wearing pajamas at ten in the morning- not that I'm above wearing pajamas at ten in the morning- it was the kind of pajamas she wore. She once greeted me at the door wearing some kind of silk and lace frilly pajamas that stopped at the top of her legs with a sleep mask pushed up over her eyebrows and onto her forehead. I don't own pajamas that fabulous. Having lived in Paris, she had style and her husband always gave her fabulous jewelry- a sapphire ring, gold necklaces, sparkly earrings. I thought this was the way of all other husbands but mine.


Omigyage
My friend, Sasebo Mama, in Washington, D.C., drove me crazy: she was always bearing neatly wrapped gifts- books, sweets, gift shop items from the museum where she volunteered- whether coming over for tea and a chat, dinner, or to the park for playtime with our daughters. Flummoxed, I once asked her, "Why do you always bring gifts when you come to my house?" It 's one thing to bring a hostess gift for a dinner party, but for every time we did something, I was confused. She shrugged her shoulders, saying, "I just do. Please don't ask." After I moved to her home country, Japan, I understood that her gift bearing was culturally rooted.

In Japan, when you invite guests over, they will come bearing gifts called omiyage. When entering your house, guests will call out, "O-jama shimasu!" It means, "Excuse me for interrupting you." Gift giving is socially sanctioned and businesses have developed around the need to find small wonderfully packaged items. Typically the gift or omiyage is seasonal fresh fruit, sweets from a local shop, or something from a place they have recently visited- dried noodles, sake, a fan.

Kendo Mama having lived in San Francisco told me of her own confusion at trying to find an American bakery to purchase omiyage in the States. She asked a local friend for a referral only to find that the bakery sold large cakes and had nothing fancy or pretty for a small hostess gift. She had no better luck at the grocery store, again finding everything too big. The lack of hostess gifts didn't stop her from finding something because as she said, "I can't not take a gift. I just can't do it."

When hosting a gathering, I prefer that my guests to relax and enjoy the tastes and ambiance provided. After spending the morning preparing food for lunch or tea, cleaning the kitchen, and tidying the living room, the guests arrive, all at once, together, bearing gifts, saying, "O-jama shimasu." Sometimes there are more gifts than can be consumed. I'm often confused as to what to do with the gifts, beyond saying, "Thank you." Do you open them? Put them away? Serve them? You would think after four years of living here that I would be better prepared to give and receive.


The Effort
It is not about the gizmo, the sparkly earrings,  or the local treat beautifully wrapped, but about the thought it takes to find a gift and the preparation to be a guest. I think, generally, the American way of friendship is of a more casual nature. A long time Japan resident, Ballerina Fan, once had me over for a casual lunch of pesto, fresh bread, and a lovely cup of coffee with a tart. She said, "I would never serve something this simple to my Japanese friends, but with you (implying fellow American) I knew I could be more relaxed." Meantime I was thinking, "Oh, I thought that was a lot of effort!"


The Commitment
Contrast that with this story from a Japanese student I tutored from time to time. Bulldog Girl took a trip to Korea with a classmate. It came about that an old friend from her time in Europe was living in Seoul. The old friend invited both travelers to her grandparent's restaurant and then to her home. However, the traveling companion did not want to go out for dinner so Bulldog Girl had to ask her traveling companion for permission to go alone. I was stunned. "You really asked her?" "Yes, in traveling with her I was obliged to stay with her," she said. "Even though it was unexpected?" I mused. "You have to ask," she reiterated. "You won't find that kind of solidarity with traveling companions in America," I cautioned. She would soon head off to study abroad in the States.


Thoughts Behind the Gift
Gift giving in Japan reflects the value of relationships but it also formalizes every encounter.  The spontaneous, more casual American approach, to just be with each other, no ties, no commitment isn't readily practiced. My thoughts about gift giving follow the path of "when inspired" buy a gift. I know I have wiggle room with my Japanese friends to avoid some of the customs they follow because the customs are their customs, not mine. I deeply respect the thought and preparation it takes to be a guest and when I expect to visit someone's home, I try to bake something to take with me to demonstrate my respect for their custom. When I travel, I don't bring back hordes of goody bags to pass out to all mostly because there are not items readily available like that in the States.

Gifts that I have received that linger in my appreciation include treats from friends's hometowns, a cake hiked up a mountain, a traditional Japanese hair pin, the scent of fresh baked bread that I did not make, encouraging words said over the phone, a kindly email, a chair in the sunshine, and widgets that I eventually figure out how to use and that you would now have to pry out of my cold, dead hands. Turns out it is not the jewelry that I really wanted, but the thoughtfulness- I want my husband to think upon me and find a suitable gift that reflects both him and me. I will stand by my gift giving philosophy of "when inspired" but I do tend to buy gifts for which I like to shop- books, pottery, incense. I have also developed a greater awareness of a guest's impact on a host and the need to offer a token of appreciation for their efforts.