Gift Giving in Thailand
“What are you getting my mom and dad for Christmas?” she said as we were leaving MBK after a decent afternoon spent wandering the hallowed halls.
“I didn’t know they celebrated Christmas.” I replied.
“Ok what are you getting them for New Year’s?” she rebutted.
Picking up a 29 baht bag of snacks from one of the many snack carts I said, “I will get this wrapped up and you can give it to them from me.”
With a sullen look she said in with an unpleasant tone, “Come on be serious, you have to get them something good for Christmas.”
I turned to her and said, “Well what should I get them? What is the Thai tradition for Christmas gift giving? Last week you told me this was the first year you would ever celebrate Christmas and now you are demanding gifts. What are your mom and
dad getting me for Christmas? Probably the same thing they got me for my birthday, or is it the same thing you got me for my birthday?” I turned to head for the exit. No sex and a quickly enraging girlfriend hot on my heels would be my
only entertainment tonight.
If I didn’t know better I could look around Bangkok and think Thais invented Soccer, Heineken, and Christmas. Though the stores here are still vacant only a few short days before Christmas (thanks PAD) it is not from a lack of trying. Decorations adorn every major storefront and in some cases the cashiers will wish you an exuberant, “Merry Christmas” as you check out, but like so many things in Thailand just scratch the surface and all is not as it seems. Behind the decorations there is no appreciation for Christmas. There is no understanding of its meaning or origins. All that is seen or understood in Thailand is that there is a tree involved, a fat guy, and many gifts to be had…farang gifts…the good kind.
Many concepts from Farangland don’t translate across the pond; like doesn’t always mean like, love doesn’t always mean love, missing isn’t always missing, and giving a gift isn’t always giving a gift. Thais love to get gifts more than anything else. They base a major part of the Thai culture they sell to foreigners around the moral benefits of free giving by farangs to Thais and their family. When I decide I want to give a gift, stupid me, I make an honest effort to get the recipient something that they will enjoy and hopefully cherish. So of course when the first gift I received from a Thai was an opened box of cereal I was a little shocked and offended.
An eager to please farang who gets hooked by an eager to be pleased Thai can quickly lead to a string of gift requests both subtle and overt. Your virgin excursion into the myriad of shopping areas will find you in serious contemplation over just the right trinket to make her smile, and after hours of scrutiny finally you will find the perfect thing for her. What follows will be her receiving the best gift she has ever been given in her life. This fact will somehow elude her as will the need to reciprocate, and the first thought to pop into her head after the rush of joy will be the strategizing of how to repeat this scenario. So the spiral will begin and soon mom, dad, brother, and little sister will be thrown into the mix. You might find yourself spending more on high-end gifts and stuffing envelopes with wads of whites and purples to the point where you will be giving hedonist all-stars good competition on baht per day expenditures. There is a way to avoid this trap and save face though. It all begins with an opened box of cereal.
You see when I received this box of cereal which was missing several bowls I knew it was time to analyze. Since we farang can never really know what a Thai is thinking (although ‘spicy food’ will usually be right 98% of the time) we have to piece it together from clues. The cereal met the gift requirement, but was such a worthless and stupid gift that I would never ask for or want a gift from this individual again. Thai culture demands I open my gift in solitude and outwardly express gratitude when presented it. I can, of course, talk trash after the fact, but that doesn’t erase the scene of me thanking a Thai for his generosity from the memories of those gathered and my complaining could be construed as a lack of gratitude. So you see the box of cereal meets the Thai gift giving tradition and gains face in the eyes of the majority. Also it lets me know this is not a gift well I can tap for nice golden trinkets so it is time to move onto bigger fish. Some of the other stellar gifts I have received include: expired lip gloss, a pencil and small notepad with 30% of the pages already torn out, and a bag of nuts with “FREE” stamped in red letters on the label.
So what does this have to do with Christmas? Well my girlfriend’s biggest complaint lately has been I don’t appreciate Thai culture enough. I have decided to begin appreciating Thai culture starting with Christmas. Since she demands a proper gift be given to each of her family members including her I have no choice but to acquiesce to both requests simultaneously. Today I found a nice sale on VCDs at 19 baht per CD. I picked up a handful, paid the princely sum of 190 baht, then proceeded to the free gift wrap counter. I hope she and her family appreciate my season’s greetings this year. Now before you start changing my name to Grinch and screaming “Bah Humbug” at me please keep in mind that while these gifts carry no forethought nor do they carry any monetary value they are each worth 19 baht more than the gifts I won’t be receiving from her and her kin this holiday season. After all, they don’t celebrate Christmas so they don’t understand that they should have gotten me a gift too (this is the excuse that the smart money will be on).
However you decide to celebrate the holidays this year I hope everyone has a happy and safe end to 2008, and let’s pray that 2009 is brighter for Thailand.
A friend of mine was out on a first date with a Thai woman recently. Towards the end of the date she asked him for 1,000 baht. He was shocked and let her know so. He then asked her why after what until that point had been a perfectly pleasant date did she ruin it with an outrageous request. She replied that all of her friends said that if you ask farangs for gifts or money they will give it to you…