Chuseok is coming up and I`m curious about gift-giving etiquette. I`ve seen a lot of gift packages being exchanged and wonder if we are expected to give gifts?
Simply put, Chuseok is a harvest festival where Korean families gather together (usually in the husband`s hometown or the oldest son`s home) and celebrate the harvest, eat traditional food and pay homage to their ancestors. Since it`s a family-based tradition, expat participation in the event is generally pretty limited. We can, however, take part in the gift-giving aspect of the holiday.
First of all, you are not obligated to buy anyone a gift. Chuseok is a family holiday, so if any gifts are being bought, it`s usually a nice gesture for family members or an offering to the family who is hosting the event. It`s not like Christmas, though. You won`t find Koreans exchanging gifts with friends or colleagues in most cases.
If you`re a teacher, it`s likely that your school, students or students` parents will buy you something for the holiday, but it doesn`t need to be reciprocated. If you`re lucky, you might be invited into a Korean home for the holiday or perhaps you have a great boss or co-worker who has been very helpful and kind to you, so showing your appreciation is always a nice gesture. It should be noted that if you are invited into a Korean home, it is not necessary to buy each family member a gift. One gift for the group is more than enough.
But what do you buy?
The gifts are typically small, simple and oftentimes, food-related -- it is a harvest festival after all. You can find Chuseok gift sets or packages at any department store or major supermarket, but locating the gifts is only half the battle. Gauging the appropriateness of the gift can be tricky, especially when you`re presented with so many unrelated options from shampoo sets to SPAM packages. Luckily, there`s some loose etiquette surrounding who gives what to whom, and even though it`s the thought that counts, a little advice never hurt anyone.
If you are buying a gift for a boss or an older person, it`s understood that personal hygiene products might not be the best way to go, as it would be a little awkward to hand your boss a toothpaste gift set. Honey is always a welcomed gift idea. It`s easy to spot at the store and usually won`t run you that much. Another popular one is a dried salted croaker fish called gulbi. The goal here is to buy something that is a little more desirable or elegant than cleansing products.
Now, if you want to get something for a co-worker, friend or someone of similar age, then you have more flexibility. Traditionally, it was seen as a nice gesture to get some dried fruit as a gift, especially persimmon, or gham. These days you pretty much have free-range, and since buying gifts for friends and colleagues is pretty uncommon, any gift will suffice as there is no real protocol.
Those are just some ideas and if you want to play it safe, rice cakes, tea, cookies or other equally small gifts are also fine. The biggest thing is to make sure that you don`t spend too much. Most of the gift sets and packages at the stores are reasonably priced, so if you do happen to buy a gift, it won`t put a dent in your wallet. For those of you new to Korea, participation in these holidays is a real treat and does wonders for bridging the communities. If a Korean family opens their door for you this holiday season, take advantage and join in on the festivities.
For more of George R. Hogan`s writings, go to www.asktheexpat.blogspot.com -- Ed.
By George R. Hogan