Giving gifts here, even money, gets really formal, really complicated, and really stressful, really fast. No gift or gesture goes unacknowledged, with interest.
The first year we worked together, I’m certain my Taiwanese co-teachers Missy and I exchanged Christmas gifts, but I don’t remember what they were. I only remember her that after they were opened, we joked about how no one gave her gifts anymore because everyone bought things for her two young sons.
Then I moved to Shanghai and she came to China to visit her husband in Suzhou. We met for dinner. I didn’t want to show up empty-handed, but I waited until the last minute to look for a gift and ended up only with remote-control cars for her two young sons. She gave me waterproof mascara. I was embarrassed that I didn’t have a gift for her. She and her husband paid for our dinner. I felt guilty.
Back in the US, I crocheted an infinity scarf for her. She sent me a big canister of green tea.
When I told her I was moving back to Taiwan, I asked her if there was anything she wanted. I brought her what she asked for and some souvenirs for her and her boys.
Missy took us out to dinner at a nice restaurant and paid for me and J, her two boys, and two of our coworkers. We appreciated her generosity, but held off on inviting her out to dinner because we were hemorrhaging cash those first few months. The debt hung over me until we treated her to dinner a year later. She drove. She didn’t let us pay for everything since there were two of us and four of them. I felt like it was too little, too late. I was embarrassed again.
Meanwhile, an an intense coffee/tea exchange began at work. I don’t know who initiated it. I was getting coffee from her at least once a week and was reciprocating each time. Some days, either of us would have two or three coffees from each other and other friends.
The first Christmas in the office, I gave everyone gifts ranging from candy bars to small houseplants. They were more like Christmas gestures, really. But I gave Missy a big bag of imported cookies, hot chocolate, and marshmallows. We still hadn’t taken her out for dinner. I figured because it was food, it wouldn’t be seen as too extravagant, but there was a lot of it, so it would still look generous. But then Missy gave me a stamp with my name on it. I was very happy to get a stamp and received it in the spirit of Christmas. But it was awkward handing off a bag full of food and getting a stamp back. I felt like I had definitely made a faux pas. Fresh from the States, where my friends and coworkers gave each other thoughtful Christmas gifts, I made a bad call. I was afraid I had embarrassed Missy.
I gave her a bar of handmade soap for her birthday in January, something small that I thought could recalibrate the size of the gifts we were exchanging.
The coffees and teas continued.
For my birthday in June, Missy gave me a lovely, oversized purse with a smaller matching handbag. It was very pretty and well-made.
The next Christmas, I didn’t give gifts to everyone in office. Maybe that was a bad strategy, but I felt like unanticipated, unreciprocated gifts were creating an ugly awkwardness around a holiday that I really wanted to enjoy, guilt-free. But then Missy gave me a very nice, very large tube of department-store hand cream. I felt like running out to get her something after the Christmas holiday would be very awkward, so I didn’t.
Instead, for her birthday in January, I got her a nice toiletry set from The Body Shop.
I came to work one day and Missy said, “I bought you a coffee, but I didn’t realize you came in late today, so I gave it to another teacher.” I didn’t mind. I figured I was kind of in the black, but so was she, and that was good an opportunity as I was going to get to stop this mad cycle of drinks.
I spent my birthday in the U.S. so there was no celebration in Taiwan and no gifts. After I came back, I found a new job.
I haven’t kept in touch with Missy or anyone much since I left. I work evenings, they work days. Missy has family obligations, while J and I like to do our own thing. There are probably lots of reasons why we drifted apart. I think that can happen to any two people after enough time and life experience. But I know for me the weight of worrying about the gifts, the ugly pressure of feeling obligated, the awkward mixture of friendship and money, was making me feel confused and resentful toward someone I wanted to be happy to see.
I had to bring this all up with another Taiwanese friend for some perspective. She told me about two famous Chinese people–singers? actors?–whose gift-giving spiraled out of control. They were buying each other vacations and cars and expensive jewelry. They finally had to call it off or risk going bankrupt. (At least that’s the version of the story I’ve taken with me.) We agreed not to mix our friendship and money. I tried to pay for her dinner later that night because it was so cheap, but she stopped me. “We just hang out, we don’t buy things for each other, okay?” she said. That sounds perfect to me.