Gifts from my Korean Relatives

My folks just came back from visiting our huge extended family in Korea, and as usual, they’ve returned bearing gifts. I’ve noticed there’s an awkwardness when it comes to gift-giving among far-flung family, and it’s not just cultural. First, because they’re family, gifts tend to be personal, like clothes and household items. On the other hand, distant relatives have little understanding of how you live, so these very personal gifts are based on assumptions, or stuff they would want for themselves.

I, myself, was guilty of this on my last visit, when I brought a dozen large commuter coffee mugs to distribute among my cousins, only to realize Koreans prefer to drink coffee sitting down and out of tiny ceramic cups. Hopefully Korean Goodwill benefited from my gaffe.

Here’s a small sampling from this trip’s booty:

A tiny red sundress.

I’ve had this problem my entire life. I understand when I left Korea in 1973, I was very small. But I have grown since. A lot. And now I have boobs. And a post-baby tummy. And let’s just stop there.

Very tiny underwear.

I think gifting underwear is a throwback to a time when such amenities were considered a luxury, say, 1970s, and perhaps this is part of a Korean sensibility that American quality can’t be nearly as good as Korean. (This is actually true in many cases.) But, really, there are some things you like to buy for yourself — plus, see above regarding size.

High quality satin throw pillow shams in two shades of teal.

There is something about being a Korean auntie that makes you think you can pick fabrics for people without knowing their color scheme. Oh, and everything they select is expensive high-quality fabric, whether it matches your room or not, so you feel particularly bad not putting them on your burgundy couch. (Confession: I want to love these so much!)

Scarves, lots and lots of scarves.

My mom says Korean women wear scarves as accessories all the time, making me wonder if I’m the only Korean who gets hot flashes. That’s why every Christmas she adds half a dozen new ones to her collection, and now she has about eight more. It is only eight because I kept a total of four, and that is for my entire family. High quality fabric, other people’s color choices. You know the drill.

French cosmetics.

I wish I’d known someone in Seoul was sending me a Lancôme lipstick before I spent the money on a Clinique lipstick at Sephora, but c’est la vie! (I’m actually thrilled with this gift. I just feel odd knowing it’s traveled through three continents to get me.)

A bar of soap.

Glycerin and organic = our Korean stuff is better than yours. That is all.

Cute face masks.

Nothing says “Just because I hate air pollution doesn’t mean I can’t be adorable!” quite like these. Culture clash pure and simple on this one.

Cosmetics bags with cute drawings on them for my 17-year-old who is no longer 10.

The recurring theme here being people tend to remember you at the age — and size — when they last saw you. (But I am of course guilty of that myself.) To be fair, she loves them, but she’s using them ironically.

These adorable little “harabang” statues.

I’m told they are fertility charms, and the less said about that, the better. My 2-year-old just likes to throw them, and we’ve already lost one of the four.

Miniature traditional instruments, crafted perfectly to scale.

Now we are getting into typical souvenir category. These guys are so well crafted you’d think they actually played. But no such luck. Purely decorative.

Korean caviar, smuggled through customs.

Okay, this is just plain awesome. On my first visit, which I made alone as a teen, word got out that this was the picky American kid’s favorite Korean food, so everyone made sure to have it for me. Thirty-plus years later, my Auntie still remembers. Awww!

All kidding aside, it’s been a wonderful experience connecting to my distant family these past couple weeks through gifts and social media. And I’m fortunate that my thin beautiful cousin who owns a neutral brown couch is looking forward to the care package I’m putting together for her. My folks are getting too old to travel much longer, so the next to go to Korea will probably be me, bringing yet another bag full of awkward American gifts.

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