From Korea with Love

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The Dilemma of Giving Gifts in South Korea

Every time there is a special occasion in South Korea, our stress over money begins. My husband and I are faced with the dilemma of either purchasing extravagant presents or setting aside budget for money gifts. If you think that preparing gifts in South Korea is an easy task, I’m telling you… it’s more likely to give you a migraine. A gift can’t be just any gift, and the idea “it’s the thought that counts” doesn’t count here. The value or price of the gift is more important than the thoughtfulness and good intention of the giver.

What’s in a brand name? 

swatchWhen I was in the Philippines, I didn’t care much about brand names. Even when I gave gifts to family and friends, I wasn’t very particular about the brand of the gift. Sure, I spent a lot of time searching for the best present, and it should have good quality, too, but the best present or a good quality gift doesn’t necessarily have to be pricey or luxurious. This is not the case in South Korea. Koreans care a lot about brands, and they don’t mind spending an awful lot of money on luxury brands or top-of-the-line products when they buy presents. Look around you, even in small towns, you will find brand name stores or shops selling expensive gift sets. Last weekend, we celebrated my 시어머님’s (si omonim: mother-in-law) birthday. My husband and I agreed that this year we would give her a gift instead of money, so I went to Lotte Depatment Store  to buy her something special. As a 며느리 (myeonori: daughter-in-law), it’s my responsibility to prepare my mother-in-law’s present. It should be expensive. It should bear the name of a popular brand for 아줌마 (ajumma: a term for married or middle-aged woman). It took me three hours looking for the perfect pair of pants and blouse for her, but good thing, end-of-season sale has started, so I didn’t spend more than I expected. If I did, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal, because I like my mother-in-law, but then our bills… ugh!

If you are giving your 시부모님 (si bumonimparents-in-law) presents, make sure that you are ready to spend money for the best gift. We never cease to please the in-laws, especially on special occasions.

It’s all about the money!

The best gift to give your Korean parents-in-law is actually money, but then you can’t just give them any amount. I suggest, you buy them gifts for birthdays or Parents’ Day, and give money on the two most important occasions, Chuseok and Seollal. Giving money to the parents-in-law is mandatory on these two occasions. In my husband’s family, we bow to all the elders on Seollal, so we don’t give money only to my parents-in-law, but also to the eldest uncle. Some of his cousins give to other uncles, too. I told my husband that we are not rich to give money to all his uncles, so we give only to the eldest uncle, since he is the one who hosts the family gathering. My husband agreed. Traditional Korean families follow this custom of giving money to the elders. On the other hand, the elders give money to the children. (Read more about Seollal.)

Money as a gift is given not only on Chuseok and Seollal, but also on weddings and birthdays. Think of it this way: when you attend a wedding or a big birthday party like 돌 (dol: a baby’s first birthday), you are actually paying for the food you eat. Weddings in Korea and dol parties are very expensive, so many guests are invited to help shoulder the expenses.

How much money gift should I give?

moneyThe money gift you give to your parents-in-law on Chuseok and Seollal depends on how generous you want to be, but the least amount of money should be 100,000 – 150,000 KRW (90 – 135 USD) for each of them.

If you will be attending a wedding or a dol party alone, and you are not a close friend of the couple or the family, 30,000 or 50,000 KRW (27 or 45 USD) is a fair amount of money to put into the wedding envelope. Never give 40,000 KRW, as “4″ is considered an unlucky number in Korea. My husband and I always give 100,000 KRW (90 USD) to an acquaintance, because we are attending as a couple. To a friend, we don’t mind giving 150,000 or 200,000 KRW  (135 or 180 USD). To a family member, we give more.

If you are very close to the couple getting married, you can give them a present instead of money. Just make sure the present is something that will be useful to them. Like I said earlier, it “can’t be just any gift”. Also, you may want to consider giving your money gift personally to the couple, instead of handing it in at the entrance of the wedding hall where the money gifts are received and recorded. The money gift you give to the person in charge of the registration will not go to the couple. The parents will use it to pay for the wedding. Some of my husband’s friends slipped their money gifts into my bag. Another friend who came late handed my husband his money gift. He didn’t go to the registration.

My husband’s boss put 1 million KRW (900 USD) into the envelope, but we didn’t have any idea that he gave a large amount until after our honeymoon. Guests with higher social status or high position in a company are expected to give bigger cash gifts. (I wonder if my husband and I will still be attending weddings when he’s already a CEO. ^^)

None of our money gifts on our wedding landed in our hands. That time, I thought it was fair, because my parents-in-law were the ones who paid for our wedding, but later, I’ve learned from my Korean friends that nowadays, some Korean parents give half of the money gifts to the couple to help them start their own savings. (Read more about money gifts in Korea.)

You can never go wrong with gold.

In Korea, the most generous first birthday gift you can give to a child (or his parents) is a 24-karat gold ring. Jewelry shops in Korea sell tiny gold rings, bracelets and other accesories for dol. Now why would you give gold to a baby? Koreans believe that gold does not depreciate, so it’s the most valuable gift you can give to a child. These days, however, only family and some close friends follow this tradition, as gold has become very costly. Most guests prefer to give money.

Are you meeting your Korean parents-in-law for the first time? Don’t forget the gift. 

wineWhen I came to Korea a month after my wedding, I brought presents for my husband’s family: bags for my mother-in-law and my sisters-in-law, belts for my brothers-in-law, and a special wine for my 시아버님 (father-in-law). My mom had been saving that wine for my father-in-law, because she heard that he likes wine. It’s a Chinese wine, but 아버님 (Abonim) didn’t drink it. I asked my husband why Abonim hasn’t even tasted it. He said it’s because it’s “made in China”. “It’s Chinese wine”, I told him, “not the cheap kind.” “It doesn’t matter,” he replied, “Next time, just buy him Johnnie Walker or Jack Daniels.” From then on, every time I come home to Korea after vacation, I buy 아버님 branded wine, whiskey or cognac. I also stopped giving my sisters-in-law bags. As mentioned earlier, brand names are quite important to Koreans. If the brand of the bag is not familiar to them, no matter how expensive the bag is, they would think it’s cheap. On the other hand, my other sister-in-law who had been to the Philippines many times appreciates Filipino-made bags. In fact, we went shopping for bags together in the Philippines. I sometimes see her using the bags I gave her. =) 

Koreans prefer a gift from another country that is either rare or very expensive in Korea. If your mother-in-law likes jewelry, you can give her pearls. Pearls cost a lot here. Handmade or native bags also make a lovely gift. I rarely see Korean women use native bags. Omonim doesn’t wear jewelry, so I didn’t buy her pearls. She’s not crazy about bags either. My sister-in-law and I gave her bags and purses, but she rarely uses them. She’s a very simple woman who is not into accessories, so I always have a hard time preparing her gift… but unlike my father-in-law, she is more appreciative.

Abonim loves coconut wine, but Korea does not have this kind of wine. My country is famous for products made out of coconut, so every time hubby and I have our vacation in the Philippines, we buy coconut wine for Abonim, my brothers-in-law and our friends.

If you are meeting your parents-in-law for the first time, think of a product your country is best known for or something that can’t easily be found in Korea. (Read more about Korean parents-in-law.)

Although preparing gifts on the most important occasions in Korea can be stressful, there are times when you don’t need to break the bank just to please the person you are giving a gift to. Gift-giving here can also be simple, unpretentious, exciting and gratifying. 

What can I bring when I visit a Korean family’s home?

seollalWhen your Korean friend invites you to his home, especially if it’s the first time,  never go to his house empty-handed. It’s common courtesy. Flowers, fruits or wine are some of the gifts you can bring. If your friend has kids, you can prepare some goodies for them, too. When my husband and I visit his friends, even just for a drink, I make sure that we have something for them. In return, his friends sometimes send us gifts of fruit or food.

If you are invited to a housewarming party, the usual gifts to bring are laundry detergent, bundles of tissue or toilet paper, candles and matches or anything that is used in the house. Sometimes, Koreans give plants or flowers in pots.

If you are visiting on Chuseok or Seollal, there are gift sets in any supermarket or department store that you can purchase a few days before or during the holidays. The gift sets are usually food or drink, and their prices range from the affordable ones to the insanely overpriced items.

Is it really give-and-take?

Koreans are very thoughtful. They like to give the best and most lavish gifts. In return, they expect to get gifts of the same worth. (Read more about Korean thoughtfulness.)

My husband calls it give-and-take, but to me it is nothing like that. I believe that when you give a gift, you don’t expect anything in return. When you receive a gift, you appreciate it no matter how simple it is. Do you ever wonder why the amount of each money gift given on a Korean wedding is recorded along with the name of the giver? This is not done, so that the couple can send thank-you notes to the guests. The money gifts are recorded, so that the couple’s parents know who gave the least and the most amount, and of course, so that they can keep track of how much money was collected. When one of the guests gets married or has a big party, the couple (or his parents) can give the same amount that the guest has given them on their wedding.

Give-and-take is also practiced in the workplace. Simple favors are sometimes returned in the form of gifts. Traditionally, Korean businessmen give gifts to those who have assisted them or may help them in the future. It is also normal for businessmen to exchange gifts when they meet for the first time or make business deals. These are ways of establishing good business relationship in Korea.

This is the way Koreans say “Thank you”.  

carnationWhen I was teaching in an international school, Korean parents would give teachers gifts even when there was no special occasion. At first, we were reluctant to receive the presents, but we were told by one of the Korean moms that giving gifts to teachers is normal in Korea. There was even a time when I was given money in a card envelope. I was thinking of giving the money back, but a Korean friend advised me not to do that, because returning a gift to a Korean parent is very rude. In other countries, accepting presents (or money gifts) from a student’s parent may be perceived as a form of bribery, but in Korea it is the parent’s way of saying “Thank you for teaching my child”. 

Let’s say you offer your Korean colleague a sandwich. The next day, he brings you a lunchbox with kimbop (rice rolls), fruit or other lunchbox food. You can simply thank your thoughtful colleague or be extra nice by returning the lunchbox with food in it. (Read more about this topic.)

This month, we are going to celebrate Chuseok. I’m starting to save money for gift expenses. I grew up in a country where a simple gift, even one that doesn’t cost much, can easily make someone happy, but now I live in a country where there are higher standards set on gift-giving. Having lived in Korea for years, I’ve gotten used to the idea of giving a gift to show respect or establish rapport rather than to give a gift simply because you care. 

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Money as Gift in South Korea

Is money an appropriate gift?

Last week, I celebrated my birthday in South Korea for the third time. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law gave me money as gift. Last year, besides my in-laws, some of my husband’s male friends also gave me cash. If it had been in the Philippines, I would be reluctant to accept the money, especially from friends, as it is not very common in my country to give cash as present on someone’s birthday.

It is not a taboo, but if you give someone money instead of a gift, the person you are giving the money to may feel that you lack effort or have not given any thought to choosing and buying the right present for him. (Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful for the money I received on my birthday, but even after 3 years of getting cash instead of a “real gift”, I haven’t gotten used to Korea’s idea of what “the most appropriate gift” is.)

Money is the easiest gift to give. You don’t have to spend hours looking for what item the person you are giving a gift to needs or wants. Although it is not rude to give money, (Some people may actually prefer it.^^) it is an obvious lack of interest and thoughtfulness on the giver’s part. It’s just like saying, “Okay, I don’t have the time to shop for  a gift for you, so I’m giving you cash. Buy whatever you please with it.”

We Filipinos give a great deal to the quote: It’s the thought that counts. We appreciate it more when a person, especially a friend or a family member who knows us well, gives us a present that most likely took a great deal of thought. It doesn’t matter if it’s a simple or inexpensive thing. A sincere and carefully chosen gift will surely make us smile.

However, in some occasions, like weddings and Christening Parties, some guests may give cash instead of presents. On Christmas and New Year, adults usually give children money. It is Filipino tradition for godparents to give their godchildren aguinaldo (gift or money), especially during the Christmas season.

When my husband and I had our second wedding ceremony in the Philippines, most of my friends and relatives gave us cash in envelopes, instead of the usual wedding gifts like appliances, bathroom items or toiletries and arinola (chamber pot). (Thank goodness, nobody gave us a chamber pot. They say it brings good fortune to a newlywed couple… but puh-lease… a chamber pot???) Because my husband and I were going abroad and we would not be able to bring “bigger gifts” with us, money was more useful.

Nowadays, Filipino wedding gifts include significant amounts of money the couple could use to begin a new life together, honeymoon packages, and jewelry from wealthy guests. (Why didn’t we get a honeymoon package? T.T)

In South Korea, money is the most preferred gift. In fact, it is MANDATORY to give money when you attend a Korean wedding. As a guest, you should register at the front of the wedding hall and hand in your gift of cash in an envelope (with your name written on it) to the family member or friend in charge of the registration. There is one guest book for the groom, and another for the bride. If you are the groom’s guest, you should give the money to the one in charge of his guest book; if you are the bride’s guest, you should give the cash to the one in charge of her guest book. The amount given is recorded in the 방명록 (guest book), along with your name.

On a baby’s first birthday, 돌 or 돌잔치, (dol or doljanchi), money is also the most favored gift. If you want to be more generous, you can give  a 24-karat gold ring instead of money. Tiny rings as gifts for dol are available in any jewelry shop in Korea.

If you will be attending a Korean wedding or dol ALONE, and you are not a close friend of the family, you can give 30, 000 to 50, 000 KRW (25.70 to 42.84 USD) (1111.51 to 1852.52 PHP). Never give 40, 000 KRW, as “4” is considered a bad number. My husband and I always give 100, 000 KRW (85.68 USD) (3705.03 PHP) to an acquaintance, and 150, 000 KRW (128.52 USD) (5557.55) to a not-so-close friend. To a close friend or a family member, we give more… not because we want to, but because that’s what we are “expected” to do. The truth is, I don’t like attending Korean weddings and dol anymore, unless the family who invited us is a very close friend or one of my husband’s family members. The only time I was ever happy in giving cash as gift here in Korea was on my brother-in-law’s wedding. Of course we gave more than what we usually give to friends, but it felt right, because my brother-in-law and his wife are very important to me and my husband… they’re more like best friends. (If I had more money, I would have given them more. ^^)

In the Philippines, I enjoy attending weddings and first birthdays because I am not burdened by the amount of money I have to give as a gift. Of course, I will still spend money for a present. (I love shopping for and giving presents.) The thing is, whatever present I give will surely be appreciated… and the value of my thoughtfulness is what will count the most… not the cost of the present nor the amount of money I put in an envelope that bears my name.

I have spent too much on some gifts for people I truly care about, and it feels good when I know that they like the gift I bought, but here in SK, I have never felt my gift “appreciated” that way, because it’s always the same thing.  There’s no element of surprise on the receivers’ part because they know it’s “cash”, and it’s most probably as much as what the other guests give.

It’s definitely “NOT the thought that counts” here.

Every time my husband and I attend a wedding or dol in Korea, we always discuss “money”. The amount of money you give as a gift actually depends on how close you are to the couple getting married or the parents of the child having his first birthday, but my husband is too generous that he wants to give more even to a mere acquaintance. He says that in Korean tradition, the amount you give will be returned to you when you’re the one having the wedding or it’s your child who’s having the dol. This is what guest books are for. Koreans keep their guest books, so that they can check the amount each person has given them, and when they are invited to a special occasion wherein they have to give money, they make it a point to give the same amount the inviter has given them. As one of my Korean colleagues in the 학원 (academy) puts it: “It’s more like investment.”

I get the whole idea. I understand why money is such an essential gift in Korean weddings and other big occasions. Korean weddings and dol are very costly, and the money that the guests give help pay for all the expenses. Giving cash as gift is actually practical, but putting so much value on the amount of money instead of the giver’s sincerity and thoughtfulness in giving what he has or can give is not the real purpose of gift-giving.

Sometimes I tell my husband: “Every time we attend a wedding or dol, why does it feel as if we ‘pay’ for the food we eat… and sometimes we pay even more?”

He just smiles and says: “They also ‘paid’ on our wedding day.”

Yup, our guests did… but the money never touched my hands nor my husband’s. They were given to the parents-in-law to help pay for wedding expenses. Oops! Don’t fret, if you are going to have a Korean wedding soon. This is perfectly normal in South Korea. You can keep the money from pyebaek (Korean traditional wedding custom), though, but it’s not going to be much.