‘Tis the season for crowded shopping malls, wrapping paper, and stocking stuffers. Oh, who am I kidding? I’ve long since given up on the traditional presents, giving instead the gift of me. That is, time spent with me. Or, as I think of it, time spent with you. In a family where the next generation of kids wanted not for another toy, I saw it as a win-win solution to the obligation and stress of the holidays. And though my sister borderline shamed me as a “Grinch,” I held steadfast to my convictions: a movie, dinner, or play sprinkled throughout the year, or a big weekend in NYC, was more meaningful than a present under the tree. (BTW, there was no shaming when she was the one in Times Square!)

Right now, I’m missing that stuff. I miss planning the next adventure with the special someone. I miss creating those memories that will be relived and shared for years to come. Can you say the same about standing in lines; express shipping; paying that extra money for yet another toy to trip over or gadget that will be used twice a year? Man, this stuff gets me haughty!

So, what is gift-giving like over here in Mongolia? Well, it’s different for sure.

My first gift was to my host family. I’d picked up some See’s Candies lollipops from the San Francisco airport. My preliminary research (the facebook group for new Mongolia volunteers) suggested that candy was always a welcomed gift. I didn’t look further. Rule #1: your gift doesn’t have to cost a lot.

Immediately prior to accepting her box of lollipops, my mom rolled down her sleeves. This was mentioned in our cultural trainings. Rule #2: do not accept (or give) gifts with sleeves pushed up.

Then, mom took the gift and put it aside. This apparent indifference is typical Mongolian behavior. Rule #3: the recipient doesn’t react excessively to having received a gift (or maybe even react at all). You could also say that the opposite, squealing while gushing “thank you,” is very un-Mongolian behavior.

When mom did look at her gift, maybe 5 minutes later, she was curious and appreciative. Rule #4: always be appreciative.

The rest of these examples can be summed up as Rule #5: it is always okay to give a gift, and Rule #6: it really is the thought that counts.

In Govi-Altai I’ve had a few more encounters with gift giving. During my first month, I went to a wedding celebration for one of the school teachers. The mom invited the entire Education Department to her ger. The department presented a monetary gift (wrapped in a khadag), which I wasn’t asked to contribute to. Upon leaving the ger, each of us was given a travel mug and a crisp, new 500 tugrik note (about 30 cents).

Over the year, I’ve occasionally had teachers, students, and community members come to my home for help with English. Since that’s why I’m here, the prospect of a gift is literally the last thing on my mind; I’m just grateful to be utilized. But I’ve enjoyed packs of cookies, a jar of strawberries, a bottle of juice, and even a silk rose.

Tsagaan Sar, when you visit the homes of friends and family and eat (the same food) at each one, is the biggest holiday in Mongolia. (Last year I did it on a small scale, visiting only 6 homes.) It officially lasts a few days; unofficially, a few weeks. Each guest received an unwrapped gift which appeared to be kind of a random match. Among the items gifted were: a wallet, photo album, dress shirt (does it fit? who knows!), lamp, notebook, and Khan Bank calendar/pen set. The giving of the gift seemed to signal that it is time for you to leave. Brilliant!

To prove I’m no Scrooge, here’s some holiday cheer.

7 Responses to gifts

  1. Priscilla A. Arsenault says:

    Your comments remind me of our cousin Liz who I think shares some of your sentiments toward traditional Christmas gift giving. The older I’ve gotten, the more I feel like you, an experience means much more to me than an item, plus I’ve lived in my house so long that I really don’t need more stuff, but a meal out, a movie, a concert, a play, now that I love and I cherish the memory of it for a long time.

    I love the breakdown of the explanation of what exactly took place when you gave your host family their gift. The sleeves and the (seemingly) disinterest, wow, I can only imagine their horrified expressions when someone from the US (or abroad) is in Mongolia and accepts a gift w/sleeves up and gushing from head to toe w/”Thank Yous!” and “Oh my gosh, you shouldn’t have!,” etc. Customs and traditions are sometimes just so different, it’s amazing. Hearing (reading?) about ones so different from your own, makes you rethink some of yours, where they might’ve come from, how they might’ve started.

    For our 49th bday last month, I gave Rach a gift certificate for an hour of horseback riding and she gave me one for a haircut (along w/her company) to her’s and Dina’s favorite hairdresser in MA. I have to say that the social aspect of the haircutting trip I am looking forward to as much as the actual haircutting!

  2. Kathy P. Willis says:

    Applause, applause to the video – it was SO good!

    Yes, I agree, as I get older, I see that the time spent with someone is more important than an actual gift.

    On the other hand, I am fairly practical, so in the past have tried to give things that would last. I also cherish gift items given to me which end up having sentimental value… like your Auntie Carolee gave us a 3 tiered snowman filled with caramel popcorn, etc. It was the last Christmas gift she gave us, so of course I will treasure it always.

    These notes (blogs) from you is another precious gift your family & friends will cherish for years… especially if you make it into a book! 🙂 Thank you, Love, for all the joy you’ve brought to your readers.

    Happy Christmas little niece, love you lots. ~Auntie~

  3. Love the video, Love! I’m going to share it with the folks back home! Thank you!

  4. ~ellen says:

    Love, I love how elegant you write and am thankful for how you continue to share your thoughts and journey. I wish you a wonderful holiday season. Looking forward to spending time with you in 2014 <3.

  5. Julie says:

    They say that giving an experience is a better gift than an object because you are giving memories which is ultimately more valuable. You’d probably like this article: (short URL) Merry Christmas! Enjoy your experience over there!

  6. Priscilla A. Arsenault says:

    Great article, Julie!

  7. ds says:

    Wow! Your blog is very interesting to read!
    Please let me add two more rules: #1 when you give gifts make sure it’s not only one item. That’s why Mongolians give mug and a note etc the idea is to give 2 or more items. #2 дээшээ харсан сав or hollow items with brim faced upwards such as mugs, socks, gloves or bags are appreciated because such things are believed to call inflow of material gains.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: