Okay, look I know that by the time you finish reading this post you are going to think I’m a totally selfish jerk that hates my friends. That’s fine, I’m okay with it. The truth of the matter is I love buying gifts for people. The right gift at the right time is one of the most exciting moments. I hum with excitement when I’ve got the perfect gift.
What I don’t like buying gifts just to buy gifts. It was one Christmas several years ago, as I walked around store after store thinking, Oh, that looks nice, who would it be good for? I realized I was just buying expensive crap to give away to people who didn’t really care. From that point on, I bought less presents. I found a few, perfect presents instead of a dozen just okay ones.
But now I’m home visiting after being gone for a long time, and social protocol demands souvenirs. Unfortunately it seems that we are stuck in the ‘perfect storm’ of souvenir buying. We’ve been gone somewhere exotic for a long time. If we were somewhere more plain, like say Florida or Arizona or someplace like that, we wouldn’t feel obliged to buy gifts. Or if we were gone a shorter time, like 2 weeks, then I would also not feel obliged to buy so many gifts. But we’ve been away for a year and a half, in a pretty exotic locale, so buy souvenirs we must. It doesn’t help also that in the course of three weeks in the US we will visit just about every friend and family member we know.
So combining all of these factors we have been buying a lot of souvenirs. A LOT. So many, in fact, that we have to bring an extra huge piece of luggage filled only with gifts and will have to pack a lot in our backpacks as well. We have also spent day after day shopping, to make sure we have enough gifts for everyone.
At first I didn’t mind. I have been buying a few things over the past few months that I knew some people would really like. I saw something, immediately thought of a friend, and saved it to give to them the next time I saw them. Those are good gifts, those are meaningful gifts.
But it started to get me down more recently when we went to Suzhou and Xitang. “What can we buy for our friends,” we thought as we walked around the souvenir stalls of these towns. â€œWe still have to buy presents for whosit, whatsit and whatshername. We ended up buying a bunch of stuff, boxes of candy, little trinkets, and it began to bother me. Then we went shopping in our own city of Lin’an, walking around glassy eyes just looking for something to buy the people still left on our list. We still weren’t done yet, and so we went to Hangzhou, the big city nearby, and schlepped all over looking for yet more presents.
That’s when I really started questioning it. I mean, why do we buy souvenirs?
In some cases it shows appreciation. These are the gifts I enjoy buying. A few friends continually help us out while we’re here, dealing with our mail, taking care of things at home. For those people, I like to buy them gifts as thanks for their help. That makes sense to me.
But what about everyone else? What about the cousin you only usually see once every two years anyway? What about the casual friends that you haven’t exchanged Christmas presents with in a decade, yet enjoy their company?
I’m not much for social niceties or customs, but even I would feel like I jerk if I didn’t get them at least a little something. And why is that? What social expectation has been pushed on me to make me need to spend hundreds of dollars on people just because I went somewhere they didn’t? What do souvenirs represent?
Ryan said that in one sense they remind our friends of us, and pledge our friendship in the future. (Remember once we see everyone, and doll out the gifts, we are going to disappear back in China for another year and a half at least.) I said it’s more like we’re thanking them for still being our friends even though we haven’t seen them in a long time.
But really, both are silly. Will giving a trinket to someone make them remember us and want to be our friend? Of course not. It’s the time spent with them, and the fun we have, that will make them remember us. I have an entire solid week booked for both lunch and dinner to see my friends when I’m in my hometown. I wanted to make sure I had time to sit down and to talk to them, to see what they have been up to and enjoy their company. To me, that is worth spending time and money on. Not souvenirs. The stuffed bunny will gather dust (and possibly be tossed in the trash) and the tea will get drunk or rot on a shelf. But the afternoon chatting over sandwiches or a burger will be fun, something we treasure far more then a little Buddha necklace. The time together will be the basis for future friendship not a souvenir.
But even though I think that, and firmly believe it, I still am packing away my souvenirs and double checking my list to make sure we got everyone covered. Because to even anti-establishment me (ha ha) gift buying is a convention I cannot get past.
Souvenirs only remind you of buying them.
– David Berman
Writer. Traveler. Tea Drinker.Writer. Traveler. Tea Drinker. Doing all three in China
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“But what about everyone else? What about the cousin you only usually see once every two years anyway? What about the casual friends that you havenâ€™t exchanged Christmas presents with in a decade, yet enjoy their company?”
Maybe I’m just an uncivilized hill person, but it wouldn’t even occur to me to get souvenirs for those people unless I was going to be staying with them during my visit! I guess I don’t think of the souvenir obligation as extending very far out into my circle of relationships.
Well, what if you were going on a 1-on-1 lunch with that person. Then what would you do? still no gift?