Too many presents
March 20, 2008 10:28 AM   Subscribe

My neighbor is very generous - too generous! Her young son and my kids play together fairly often, and each time my kids go to their house to visit, my neighbor sends my kids home with several gifts. Sometimes if she sees my kids playing in the back yard she just hands gifts over the fence. Last time it was a large tin of cookies, a box of Whoppers candies, and a Vitamin Water style drink. In the past gifts have included a hand-knit scarf, brand new clothes, a doll, a box of donuts, and a large plate of homemade fried chicken. At Lunar New Year she gave each of my kids ten bucks plus a box of sweet rolls. I don’t know this woman well at all. We’ve said ‘hi’ a few times but her English is limited and I don’t speak her language which I believe is Thai. I get the sense that our different expectations around gift giving are related to cultural differences (she’s an immigrant from SE Asia, I’m white, born and raised in California), and maybe also that she is just a particularly (or maybe compulsively) gift-giving person.

I really want to be polite and respectful. I’d like my kids to get to keep playing with this neighbor kid. But I’m not into my kid eating all the junk food they send over and I’m uncomfortable with the volume of presents. At first I tried to reciprocate. After we received our first bag of gifts I sent over a plate of homemade donuts that I happened to be making, but I can’t possibly keep up with all of her gifts and now I’m afraid if I give them anything else I’ll just escalate the gift arms race! Now I shake my head “no”, cross my hands in front of myself, and smile and say “No Thank You” when I see the neighbor giving stuff to the kids and the neighbor just nods and smiles and keeps handing stuff over. Especially given our cultural and language differences, I’m just at a loss for how to deal with this conflict.
posted by serazin to Human Relations (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure if this fits with the cultural/language differences, but based on your previous posts it looks like you're not married. If you're male, and she's single as well, could she be reaching out to you? Given that you lack a common language, this may be the only way she knows how to express her interest.

If you're female, and either single or your partner doesn't live with you, could the gifts be a cultural thing, e.g. she knows you're apparently single and feels sorry for you and is trying to help out a little, doing whatever she perceives she can do? I'm not from SE Asia, but I used to work in a neighborhood that was predominantly Korean, Vietnamese, and Laotian, and (at 25) I got a fair number of pitying looks when I revealed that I was unwed. Several very kind ladies tried to fix me up with their nephews/grandsons/2nd cousins. I would say, "I'm not ready to settle down yet" and they'd nod knowingly then continue with the pitying glances.

OTOH, maybe she's lonely. What about inviting her and her herd to join your herd on a nice walk some time. Do you have a bike path in your area? Or maybe the Exploratorium, since I noticed you previously mentioned the Bay Area? You don't need to know how to ask, just get a brochure w. lots of pictures, bring it over to her house, and pull out a calender. Maybe this might help? As you get to know her a little better, maybe you can check out a dictionary and find out how to say, "You're very kind but I don't want my kids to eat sweets, please," in her language.
posted by arnicae at 10:55 AM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I had a similar Chinese neighbor who would constantly, very enthusiastically, give me things, and half the time it was stuff she wanted to get rid of, or didn't want to go to waste (pieces of fresh fruit, etc.) Gifts are made for accepting, graciously, but a few times, after I'd already accepted a tin of candies and yummy potstickers, when she offered me some more fresh fruit on top of that I just graciously said, no thank you, this is enough, and she was content with that.
posted by Melismata at 11:02 AM on March 20, 2008

Not sure how it goes for gifting across a yard or fence, but whenever my mom (Chinese) went to visit one of her friends in their houses, she'd always bring a gift- crackers, snacks, fruits, that sort of light snacks. Never at the more standard American level of chocolates or wine. When her friends visited, they'd bring similar items as well.

Whenever I go visit my boyfriends family (American White people) , my mom always mentions that I should go buy a bag of oranges or something to bring over with me. Or a nice box of cookies. I don't cause I think they'd just think it was weird.
posted by Jimmie at 11:07 AM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Instead of trying to deter her from giving the gifts, you can explain to your kids that your neighbor is a very generous woman but that you are able to provide all the things that they need. Instead of turning away the gifts, you should work with your kids to identity needy people in your community or a food bank that would benefit from the gifts and your children could pass them along. I think it's slightly harder to gift homemade food items, but certainly the whoppers or anything else store bought can be given to more needy people quite easily.

And with the language barrier, I can't imagine she is asking the kids how they like the items. That way you get to graciously accept the items, your neighbor enjoys giving them, and your kids get to learn a lesson about charity.
posted by andoatnp at 11:10 AM on March 20, 2008

you white people have too many hangups...

just smile and say thank you. the cultural difference precludes you from having to reciprocate. if you're worried about the sweets, just take them from your kid before your kids scoff 'em.

it's nice to be nice. it's rude to outright refuse other people's nice gestures because you don't want to have to be nice back.

deal with it.
posted by dawdle at 11:15 AM on March 20, 2008 [23 favorites]

Two data points:

My grandmother is Filipino, and loads anyone who goes to her house down with presents. These aren't presents she has gone out and carefully selected, though, they are more like whatever she wants to get rid of or whatever comes to hand (grapefruits from the tree outside, some random box of something she picked up at Costco, a model of the solar system she stashed from her teaching days way back when, a jean jacket she's had in the closet for decades with spangles and leather fringe...). She's pretty vehement about the giving, even though it's not what you would want or need in a million years, and the only realistic solution is to accept it as graciously as possible.

We live in a mostly Asian neighborhood (I'm part Asian, my husband is as Nordic as they get), and we get presents from people who aren't even our neighbors - when the folks we drop off our laundry with found out that we just had a baby, they started giving us stuff at about every other laundry trip. Again, this isn't expensive stuff, more like age-inappropriate toys and clothes as well as coupons from diapers they have cut out from somewhere. They don't seem to expect swag in return. So we attempt to receive the gift with enthusiasm and in the spirit in which it is given (new family! they obviously need help! and diaper coupons!).

I believe that your neighbor's gift giving is cultural, that it's her way of expressing friendly sentiments, AND that not as much thought is put into the presents as you might when you give presents. Most of the time I'm sure she's giving you the extra from her latest shopping trip or batch of cooking. Don't feel obligated to reciprocate in kind by collecting random stuff from your house, but if you DO happen to have extra of whatever you are making, send that over. Also, don't feel so guilty about accepting the presents, and try to reach out to her in other, non-gift ways. Communicate to her through her kids, if they know more English than her. If she's out working in the yard, offer to help. Attempt to make conversation, to the best of your/her ability. That sort of thing.
posted by Wavelet at 11:22 AM on March 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

What dawdle said. Don't read anything into it and graciously accept with a smile. From the perspective of a white Brit married into a Chinese family.
posted by arcticseal at 11:25 AM on March 20, 2008

Mod note: comment removed - metadiscussion that is not an answer to the question needs to go to metatalk, thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:07 PM on March 20, 2008

Does she not speak any english at all? I don't think its unreasonable, regardless of cultural differences to ask her not to give your children so many sweets. If she wants to give gifts she can give them fruit. (maybe you could give her kids fruit as gifts, as a sort of hint if you can't communicate with her.)

At university we had a Chinese girl in our halls and she would always offer me food if we were in the kitchen together like kit-kats and stuff she'd cooked, she was usually quite insistent and wouldn't take no for an answer (except the rose-buds)
posted by missmagenta at 12:18 PM on March 20, 2008

I agree with dawdle...she's just being nice. There is no conflict! Nothing is expected of you except to smile, accept the gifts, and say thank you. She probably appreciates the fact that your kids play with her son. Maybe they don't have family in the area, and your kids are the closest thing that they have to nieces/nephews/cousins.

It would be rude to start refusing gifts. If you don't want your kids to eat a lot of junk food, just monitor their consumption once the items are brought back to your house. If you happen to be making cookies or something you think they might enjoy, sure, send some along, but don't stress yourself out thinking that you have to reciprocate each gift in kind.
posted by emd3737 at 12:30 PM on March 20, 2008

I'll chime in with everyone else who is saying: it's cultural, reciprocation at the same level is not expected, and it's nice to accept graciously and re-gift if they are things you can't use/don't want. This is probably your neighbour's way of trying to show, without words, that she likes you and your kids and appreciates the connection. This also might be a good teachable moment--you and your kids can have a discussion about different cultural norms. And, since she shared something with your family about her own culture (Lunar New Year) maybe you could do something similar at one of the holidays you celebrate--she and her family might not know much about American traditions and enjoy participating in a new experience like Fourth of July or something like that. That would be a nice way to reciprocate without you feeling like you have to constantly be giving gifts.

[Like others above, I totally recognize this gift-giving behaviour: my mother's family is Asian and have all lived in Canada for three decades, but God help you if you try to leave from a visit empty-handed. With them, it's always snacks of some sort so that you don't go hungry before you arrive at your next destination. When my bf picks me up at the airport after a visit home, he always jokes, "Where are the baked goods?" I once took an entire pie, a shopping bag full of packages of noodles, and a container of home-made cookies through airport security after having them pressed on me by my family when they dropped me off. Fortunately, the security staff were Asian too so they didn't say anything. Probably knew what was up as soon as they saw the pie.]
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:50 PM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

As a white girl who married into a chinese family, I understand where you're coming from, but you're definitely overthinking it. Like others have said, it's just a cultural thing. Graciously accept, and don't stress about reciprocating.
posted by somanyamys at 1:24 PM on March 20, 2008

I agree with all that was said about being gracious and just accepting the gifts. The only thing I might add is that it is probably a little weird for her to have her son and your kids play with each other while the two of you are essentially strangers (you're not even sure what language she speaks). Not that she expects you to get to know each other, just that she may be used to other cultural norms and this is probably unfamiliar territory to her.

How wonderful for you to have a such generous neighbor with a playmate for your children no less!
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 1:45 PM on March 20, 2008

Just be thankful your kid isn't hanging out with a wealthy asian family that has the same tendency - then you start getting bottles of cognac, fruit baskets the size of fire hydrants, and every time they go over they'll get fed like it was some kind of dwarven banquet.

Just keep in mind that you are NOT expected to reciprocate, that there's no "gift gap" here and she's not taking score or anything. It is a little insulting if you outright refuse to receive anything at all, so you're going to have to accept that you'll still get things, but you can try to limit the quantity. After accepting the first gift, you should do as I do and just insist "No, too much! Too much! Thank you! Too much!" while backing away and waving your hands as if you couldn't possibly take any more. This will usually work for the food. Unfortunately, you can't do much about the cash - at New Year's it is traditional and is good luck to give cash, usually wrapped in some kind of special envelope, and especially to children. As a young'un, I received these cash envelopes from people completely unknown to me, who just happened to be visiting my parents/grandparents during that particular season. Cha-ching! Of course, this doesn't happen anymore, as the advancing daylight of the years has stolen the glow of dawn from my cheeks...

If you would like to reciprocate in some way, I like the ideas above about involving your neighbor in some American traditions that she might not otherwise have previous experience. Some kids in my neighborhood are completely mystified about this whole "egg coloring and gathering" phenomena that's going on about now. Why not send your kids over with some eggs they decorated? 4th of July backyard BBQ would be a great time to mix it up with her - but you'd better expect she's going to bring a bunch of food with her (it's considered poor form where I'm from not to bring something to a neighbors house). Also, why not ask what country she is from and read up on some of their gift-giving customs? Then you might know when to expect gifts, and you might have something ready to give her in exchange.
posted by krippledkonscious at 1:58 PM on March 20, 2008 [5 favorites]

Instead of turning away the gifts, you should work with your kids to identity needy people in your community or a food bank that would benefit from the gifts

Just make sure your neighbor never finds out. Giving away received gifts - especially to charity - is unimaginably insulting and rude for SE Asians.
posted by Xere at 3:09 PM on March 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Maybe because she does not speak the language well she is concerned that her children might not have friends and she is trying to ensure that they do by supplying sweets and gifts.

Regardless, I would say thank you very much and move on.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 3:26 PM on March 20, 2008

This is cultural. Thais adore kids, and shower them with gifts. In fact, Thai adults will even give up their seats on buses for kids.
posted by lunasol at 4:41 PM on March 20, 2008

It is probably ethnically Asian. My father's parents (both deceased now, alas) were Western-educated but first-generation Chinese immigrants. They loved their grandkids and on their visits they brought things to eat and offered to buy gifts until we kids had to say (not in so many words), "NO, WE ARE STUFFED! WE DO NOT WANT ANY MORE PRESENTS! WE LOVE YOU! ENOUGH!"

Small things, usually (such as Chinese snacks that then were hard to find on the East Coast; tourist trinkets).

I can see how, if you see this person frequently, it might become unbearable.
posted by bad grammar at 6:36 PM on March 20, 2008

I really wouldn't worry about it. Half of it is probably just her getting rid of stuff and the Asian need to not waste anything. It's a communal and sharing culture, this is what they do. She's new to town and you are officially part of her new extended family/community. Don't worry too much about reciprocating (except obviously now and then) as someone not part of her culture, she is highly unlikely to have the same cultural expectations that she might on a fellow Thai. The best thing you can probably do for her is to keep having her kid over and try to keep an eye out for him/her to make sure he/she is adjusting and has friends.
posted by whoaali at 6:45 PM on March 20, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks all. Sounds like we have a semi-consensus that I should not worry about it, accept the gifts, reciprocate when appropriate, and again, not worry about it. For whatever reason, reading all of your advice makes me feel much calmer about the situation.
posted by serazin at 11:17 PM on March 20, 2008

It might also make you feel a little calmer to know that, if your neighbor is anything like some of the asian parents I know, she might have forgotten been saving those Whoppers for a while. A WHILE. Lucky you!
posted by crunch buttsteak at 10:25 AM on March 21, 2008

Apologize for popping in like, two years too late, but this reminds me of a situation my mother used to have with an elderly neighbor. Only in our case, my mom was the overzealous giver.

For whatever reason, she thought of buying this lady little knick-knacks every time she went to the store. Well, apparently the lady got a little annoyed with all this unnecessary crap that kept coming her way, so she started "re-gifting" them back to my mom. She told my mom it was because the gifts were so nice, she thought my mom deserved to keep them.

Although... not sure that would work as well with Vitamin Water or fried chicken. Best of luck to you!
posted by Ruby Doomsday at 2:45 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

My neighbors do this, but their stuff smells so bad I have to wrap it in plastic before I try to detoxify it. So hey it could be worse!
posted by daisydaisy at 2:06 PM on February 28, 2009

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