The subject of this post may seem a bit odd but I assure you, that Korean gift giving etiquette and practices are a "thing". I am half Korean and since my mother was a first-generation immigrant to the states, many of her Korean customs were instilled in me throughout my childhood.
I thought I would share this with you since we're coming up on one of the biggest gift-giving practices of the year - Christmas - and it's one holiday that holds some of the fondest memories of my mother. My observations are not merely drawn from experiences with my mother, but also observations of other first-generation Korean immigrants that were friends of my mother.
One thing that needs to be understood is that the etiquette and practice surrounding Korean gift giving is wrapped in moral character and cultural mindset at its root. As a people, Koreans are very proud, polite and private. Theirs is also a culture that is steeped in respect and reciprocity. Etiquette is merely an extension of these values.
In general, Koreans tend to be people pleasers, and that cultural norm extends to gift-giving. The typical Korean, is tickled when they please someone by doing something for them, sharing a meal they prepared, or giving a gift they bought. By Korean standards, doing a kind deed or sharing a meal are considered gifts because it is an extension of themselves.
I can remember my mother watching the recipient intently when she had done or given something. Her eyes would twinkle like stars when she saw that she hit the mark. Her reaction was every bit as much a display of self-pride, as it was genuine pleasure that she had brought happiness to someone else.
At Christmas time, every present under the tree had been impeccably and lovingly wrapped. The paper folds were crisply creased, and the packages were adorned with ribbons and bows symmetrically placed. After all, the presentation of the gift was just as important as the contents inside the box. In fact, even the arrangement of the packages under the tree were strategically placed so that each row had a gift for each person so that fairness and order was maintained.
In our house, after each gift was opened, “thank you” and cleaning up the wrapping paper carnage was just part of good etiquette before opening another gift. And this was how the ritualistic practice was exercised. There was no chaos or mayhem. When my mother opened a gift, you never really could tell if she really liked it, or if her smile and thank you were out of respect for the gift-giver.
One particularly fond Christmas was when I was 16 years old. But there’s a back story that has to be told for you to understand. As is the practice in every Asian house that I’ve ever been in, shoes are taken off at the door. It’s not only good etiquette, but it displays respect to the owner of the home that a visitor not soil the floors with dirty shoes.
My mother suffered a back injury when I was ten years old and lived in continual pain thereafter. She had always kept an impeccably clean house and after her injury, that fell to my sister and I. She took to the practice of telling visitors to wipe their feet before entering.
Now mind you, it was her back that was injured, not her eyes. That woman could see a crumb on the floor at fifty paces away. Since she couldn’t bend over to pick it up, she would point to the crumb and send me scurrying to pick it up instead. Dutifully I obliged without complaint…most of the time. Every once in awhile I would groan about it and she would immediately say, “Well if people would just wipe their feet before coming in….” and her voice would trail off.
Fast forward to when I was sixteen, when I found the PERFECT Christmas present for my mother. It was the only time in my life that I can remember her laughing until she had tears streaming down her face. It was a gift that showed my respect for her ways and in true Korean etiquette gift giving practice, it was impeccably wrapped and adorned.
The gift? It was a door mat that boldly stated, “Wipe your feet stupid!”
Bottom Line on Korean Gift Giving Etiquette and Practices
It's all about thinking of the recipient more than self; presenting the gift in a pleasing way given with both hands extended; and, exhibiting thankfulness and respect as the recipient. It's not really any more complicated than that.