Saturday, December 22, 2007
Gifts For Students
For many people who work as teachers, gift-giving in Japan is largely a one-way street. The students give and the teacher receives. The biggest reason for this is that the Japanese are in the habit of giving gifts as a means of building relationships and they particularly have the habit of giving gifts to people who offer services.
Further, it is also the case that each student has one teacher and each teacher has many students so it’s very impractical for the teacher to be giving gifts to students on a regular basis, at least if the teacher wants to be relatively egalitarian about it. Nonetheless, when my husband visited home last May, he spent a large amount of money on souvenir See’s Candy for the students who he saw repeatedly and who he felt a good emotional connection with. He wanted to indicate to them that he enjoyed the time he spent with them in lessons.
Since this is the season where people traditionally show their appreciation and affection, he wanted to work out a way to offer up a Christmas “gift” that would express this sentiment again to those people who he’d be encountering in mid to late December. For this, we decided to go back to doing something I used to do for my coworkers when I worked in a Japanese office. We assembled “goodie bags”.
In the past, my goodie bags were mainly a boatload of homemade baking goods including pumpkin cake, brownies, sugar cookies, and peanut butter cookies with a candy cane or maybe some peanut butter cup miniatures thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, I don’t have the energy or time to do all that baking. Also, while I delivered my goodies on one day and distributed them to the entire office at once, he needs to string out is gifts over 2 weeks as he sometimes sees students once every few weeks. This made timing everything rather complex and made it imperative that we mainly use items that would keep without freezing or loss of freshness.
My husband bought a vast quantity of imported chocolates and I made peanut butter cookies which we packaged up in craft bags. I drew a Calvin & Hobbes Christmas scene in Adobe Illustrator and we sealed them with a commercial Christmas sticker. As individual packs, they may not really be much of a big deal but assembling so many of them has taken a lot of time, effort, and expense. Fortunately, the students’ responses have been worth it. They have been unfailingly gracious and happy with the bags of treats.
One thing which isn’t necessarily unique to Japanese culture, but is definitely more common is that people are happier with the effort you make more so than the content of the gift you give. Back home, most gifts seem to be received with higher expectations about the value of the contents than about the gesture itself. Sometimes I wonder if this relates to the fact that we have more occasions where people “expect” big gifts or gifts in larger quantities (Christmas and birthdays) and this anticipation has an effect on how gifts are viewed overall. The focus seems to be on what it is rather than why it’s given. While I’m certainly not concluding that the Japanese have no focus on what it is or that people back home never think about why it’s given, I think the heavier focus tends to be on why in Japan and what in the U.S.