On the way home last evening, we fell into a conversation, and many people would find the topic interesting. We were talking about different cultures, comparing how they give gifts and how they react to one another personally. If you haven’t lived in these countries we were talking about, you may not know these things, but you would find them interesting.
We talked about how Japan has embraced Christmas so much, but that it is not a Christian country. However, my daughter pointed out that Japanese have a whole culture of gift giving, so it doesn’t surprise her that they would embrace a holiday that has a lot of gift giving. She was right about the Japanese giving a lot of gifts. If you want to be friends with someone in Japan, you give them a gift. If that person also wants to be friends back, they give you a gift. If you are traveling in Japan, there all kinds of special gifts they have available for you to buy because when Japanese travel, they always take gifts back for their friends. If someone takes a test, you may give them a small gift before they take the test for good luck. If you give a gift in Japan, you always tie it with red ribbon. Red ribbon symbolizes happiness in Japan.
As far as Korea, they like to incorporate things from other countries into Korea too. Christmas doesn’t seem as big to foreigners in Korea because it is only the Christians who celebrate it, and they do it at church, not at home. The holiday that surprises people that Koreans like is Halloween. However, if you know the nature of the Korean people, you shouldn’t be surprised. In America, they watch horror movies that came about because of Halloween, but in Korea, they watch horror movies because of their need for extreme sensation. Horror movies are extremely popular in Korea! The extreme sensation does not apply just to their movies. It also applies to their food. They love spicy food!! In America, in Japan, in Romania, in most countries in the world, when we eat, we want something that tastes good. However, that is not what most Koreans are looking for when they eat. They want food that reaches out and bites them. Their word that translates into English as “delicious” does not actually mean delicious. It means “it has taste!” When they eat foreign food, it takes them time to figure out what the word delicious actually means because the concept in Korean is completely different.
The Korean idea of gifts is completely different too. In Japan and in America, we give something. We buy or make something nice and wrap it up and give it to the person, but not so in Korea. If they give you a gift, they may give you toilet paper or a bottle of cooking oil. Each gift foreigners think is very funny, to the Koreans has symbolism. Toilet paper wishes you a long life. Cooking oil wishes you riches. Seaweed is slippery, so if you give them seaweed, you are hoping something will slip away from you or perhaps out of you like answers on a test. I am not sure of all their gift meanings, but I know their funny gifts have meanings. On your birthday, if you are Korean, your mother will make you seaweed soup rather than a birthday cake. If you get a birthday cake, your friends give it to you as a gift from a bakery, and it is not as sweet as cakes from other countries because many Koreans are afraid of sugar. At a wedding, you must give money as a gift. The bride and groom use the money to pay for the wedding and go on the honeymoon. However, in America, it is poor taste to just give money.
In America, we give gifts at Christmas, on birthdays, and at weddings. We give gifts when babies are born too. We have a special party when a baby is born called “a baby shower.” People bring new clothes and toys for the baby. They also bring lots of diapers. When a young couple gets married, besides the regular wedding gifts, they give wedding showers, parties where friends bring wedding gifts. Sometimes, it is a regular shower, and the young couple receives things like dishes, vacuum cleaners, towels, sheets, etc. Sometimes, it is just for the bride, and the other young women give her a personal shower. She receives things like fancy night gowns and underwear. For all of these, there is a list kept of who gave what, and the bride and groom end up sending thank you cards for all the nice gifts. We also give gifts at graduation. When I graduated from high school, lots of people gave me lots of bottles of perfume! We give lots of gifts in America, and giving money is considered impersonal. People appreciate the money, but we are all encouraged to think about the person who received the gift and give a real gift, not just money. Grandparents can get by with just giving money. On the Korean and Japanese New Year, the grandparents give money to the kids.
In Romania, they also give money as wedding presents. At one point during the reception, the bride may put on an apron with a pocket. If you want to dance with the bride, you put money in her pocket. They use the money to go on a honeymoon. During the reception feast, people stand up and announce how much money they are giving. In Korea, they only write it in a book, but in Romania, I have seen people stand up in the banquet part of the wedding reception and hold up a wad of money bragging about how much money they are giving the bride and groom. The next person stands up and tries to top the amount of money the first person gave. Everyone wants to be known as giving the most. I even when to one wedding where the brother in law of the groom and the groom made a pact before the wedding to get people to give more money. They agreed that the brother in law would stand up and announce a large amount of money and wave it around, then give it to the groom hoping it would prompt someone to give even more money after that. After the wedding, they agreed that the groom would give the money the brother in law gave him back. It was a way of getting more money for the bride and groom because everyone wants to be the hero and give the most money. The bride and groom use the money for a honeymoon.
The Romanians also have a system of flower giving. When you go to a person’s house as a guest, you never go empty handed. Some people take a bottle of wine. Others take flowers. If you take flowers, never take an even number of flowers. If you take an even number of flowers, it is a sad occasion. If you take an odd number of flowers, it is a happy occasion. I was even informed there is something called “guest’s rights” in Romania. If you are invited for a meal, they don’t want you in the kitchen helping. They want to serve you. In America, if we go to the kitchen and help with the dishes, it is appreciated, but in Romania, they chased me out of the kitchen.
In Korea, they do something else interesting if you are eating with them. If you are friends, you share food. You will be sitting in a restaurant with them, and they will start spooning some of heir food on your plate insisting you try some of their food. You will probably reciprocate and share some with them too. They will only do it if they consider you a close friend. The Koreans also eat after one another. In America, we are strictly taught by our parents not to eat after one another so as not to share germs, but the Koreans are not worried about germs, Everyone eats and drinks after one another. If they ask you for a drink of your Coke or bottle of water, and you refuse, they will feel slighted. Some insist they can drink without touching touching the bottle to their lips. If someone feels extremely close they may actually try to stuff food in your mouth and feed you like we feed babies in America. There are always shows on TV where a boyfriend and girl friend are stuffing food in one another’s mouths. Once, a student began coming to the English Bible study in my office, and I ended up telling him about church and inviting him to come. The church was eating together as they usually do after services one day, and he suggested I poke food in his mouth, and he would poke food in my daughter’s mouth. We refused. We wanted to be friends, but we weren’t ready to start feeding people and letting them feed us.
Besides gifts and eating, there are different ways of listening. In America, if someone is talking, you just shut up and listen. It is rude to interrupt. In Japan, if someone is talking, you shake your head, “yes” and say things like, “Hi!” meaning “yes,” and “ah so desuka?” meaning “really, is that right?” If you say nothing, they think you aren’t listening. In Korea, it is all about being heard. It doesn’t matter if anyone agrees or even listens as long as you get to talk. In Romania, when they talk to you, the space issue could bother an American. An American preacher’s wife told me one Sunday after church she felt like she had been backed clear around the room because the Romanians kept getting too close for her personal feeling of comfort, and she kept backing up. In many countries, the space issue bothers Americans. In Nigeria, when I rode in the taxis that took several people at the same time, I knew I had to just get ready for everyone to be mashed in there together right up against all the strangers. Americans have space issues. We just don’t want to be that close to everyone. If someone gets close, it feels completely personal.
As you go from country to country, there are always interesting things like this you need to get used to and figure out how to handle if they make you uncomfortable. When I was in Japan, I was informed that everyone followed the rules, but if a foreigner didn’t follow the rules, it was expected because they were foreigners and may not even know Japanese rules. In Korea, if they can’t share your food or drink after you, they may feel slighted, but they are learning that foreigners like their food on their plates separate from the others. In Korea, they are completely thrilled with the idea that they can make friends with foreigners, and they try to learn your ways and English to talk to you. The Romanians try to learn everyone’s language. They love to give cakes to foreigners. Romanians are usually very gracious people who welcome everyone in. Koreans like to hang out with you, but since their apartments are usually so small, they won’t invite you to their house unless you know them very well. American southerners will invite you home to eat with them. They southerners in America talk to everyone. In Canada and in the northern part of the U. S., if you say “hi” to random people at the grocery store or as you are walking down the street, they may think you are crazy. In Mexico, don’t say “come here” by motioning with your palm up. You must keep your palm down because with the palm up, it means “come up to me” like you think you are better than they are. If you see someone in Romania, touching their cheek, it means that what is happening is shameful. If you call a Japanese by name, and they want to say, “Who? Me?,” they will touch their nose. They won’t point to their chest like most countries. Koreans love to help travelers. In each country and sometimes in different parts of each country, we respond to one another differently, and what people do is interesting.