I have received interesting gifts over the years. I like to get gifts but I am also plagued by worries over the experience. I don’t know if I’ll like the gift. Unliked gifts remain unused and hidden in the crevices of my overly cluttered house. It sets up self-induced shame for not fully appreciating the gift and good intentions to actually use the gift. Truth be told, my gift-related concerns start before the said gift-giving celebration. I used to prepare a stock “appropriate” response for when I opened the gift, a ready “oh, wow, great!” for just that moment. I wanted to make sure that I would fulfill my presentee duties. I’d be prepared with a measured response to the awful gifts given with the best intentions.
I can’t remember my first “huh, whuh?” gift but one of the memorable ones came in middle school. All the kids in the school were randomly paired to be Secret Santas, but somehow my person turned out to be an older girl in my parents’ car ride share. Her parents were nice; more importantly, on my behalf, their car was comfortable and they were generous in heating their car on cold, wintery mornings. However, my relationship with their daughter was strained. I was a few grades below her, making it into a high schooler versus a middle schooler relationship. In other words, a teenager who didn’t want to associate with a younger kid.
My mother and I, meaning only my mother, made an effort in picking the best Secret Santa gift. We decided on a cute little silver bracelet (that was on sale, of course. Why pay full price if you don’t need to? Cheap price for an expensive gift.) The whole school was packed into the cafeteria. We all jostled to reveal ourselves and our secret gifts to each other. I found the girl before she found me. I was short then. To think about it, I didn’t grow further after 12 years old so, yeah, I’m still short. She thrust her gift at me and I gave mine to her.
We removed the wrapping at the same time. I think she liked it but I’m not sure because my gift overshadowed any attempt to check her response or to create my customary “Oh, wow, thanks!” Which, in retrospect, was a shame as this gift needed my prepared expression. I got a medium-sized rusty cow bell in a box. After a quick “thanks” my gifter ran away from me (the middle schooler) to join her high school friends in the melee of school kids on the cusp of Christmas break.
I remember my first anxious thought, whatever did I say to her in the car that made her ever think I wanted a cow bell? To be fair, I’m not sure if it was medium-sized or not, because I was born and raised in surburbia. But it was definitely rusty rather than rustic chic. And I am sure that it was Secret Santa gift exchange not White Elephant gift exchange. My Secret Santa’s family had a nice home near farmhouse country-turning-surburbia so that’d explain the cowbell’s origins. It would not have matter if we really didn’t see each other on a regular basis, it kinda stung that we kinda knew each other from our daily trips to school. I guess she wasn’t one for forethought. In the end, I made up some nice gift for myself when my mother asked how was my gift and how was our gift was received. I buried it in clutter of my parents’ home but I guess not well enough. My father found it one day and the next time I saw that memorable bell, it was part of some odd home-made windchime. Apparently it was a perfect gift for him.
Yes, there are gifts given with good intentions, but people have different definitions of good. One year I received an exhaustive display collection of miniature ships from the expansive Star Trek franchise. I am a fan of the Star Trek universe, but I do not harbor the amount adult sci-fi glee over starships as my brother when I opened the large present. Somehow I was not surprised as he had mentioned earlier his desire to own such a collection. I could forgive him because I knew his intention was that he assumed I’d change my Trekkie mind once I beheld the impressive array of starships. Nope, but I had my expression ready with modifications – “Really, now? Thanks but you can display it in your room.”
This brother has given great gifts to me over the years but he has a mischievous side (see above) so that was why I had my gift expression at the ready. One year he gave me a small wrapped box. I unwrapped it only to find it empty. Nothing. I showed it to him and my family, expecting it to be a mistake. It was not. Instead of thinking, gag gift, I got angry. Imagine a “thank you but not really thank you” facial expression. I was primed for an argument because my other brother just informed me that he planned to buy me a gift after Christmas, when we were overseas visiting family. (After holiday flights are cheaper. My family likes frugality). Looking back, I can understand his pragmatism, but, he gave everyone else in my family gifts and we live close to malls and bookstores. I’m a book-lover at heart. I’d appreciate a $10 bookstore gift card. (It would’ve been enough to buy one book back then.)
When the brother with the empty gift was followed by the brother with the empty gift box, I was ready to drop my Christmas spirit and expression. Instead there was a growing wish to shove my own definition of good up some siblings’ butt, goodwill or no. I began to open my mouth to begin the complaints (okay, the whining). My parents, seeing the potential for sparks (rather than the sparkle from the Christmas lights) started to speak. I expected to hear, hey, it’s Christmas, let’s be nice. But I was startled to hear them start to lecture both brothers on gift-giving etiquette. And their little parental speech irritated the hell out of me.
They stole my thunderstorm. Nobody likes that, especially when you are full of righteous anger. But they usurped the situation by stepping into their adult children’s situation. Yes, I was pretty bummed and disappointed that I was cheated out of some well-chosen mall-manufactured, materialistic gifts by loving siblings, but the truth of the matter is that neither of my brothers are obligated to give a Christmas gift. It may be the custom, but, truly, who wants a gift that was picked for the occasion rather than joyfully chosen for you?
One time I got as a gift a small wooden block which displayed a flowery quote espousing the joys of close, almost sisterly, friendship. It sounds like it was a good gift until the person who gave it to me was someone who never responded to my overtures in the past decade. I think she did it because she wanted an excuse to mail me a photo of her first child. I appreciated her card and gorgeous newborn (they all look good even the ones that look squishy at birth) but I wished she didn’t include the gift. Nobody needs an excuse to send me photos of wonderful, wrinkly newborns.
Lastly, I was going to complain and chide my brothers not dress them down. One of them was actually a gag gift. He said it was a “box of love”. In the end, there was a payoff for me after successfully pulling my leg. As for the other brother, if he wanted to give my gift after Christmas, he can do so. Anyway, my mall gift is only being postponed and it would be from an overseas mall for a change of pace. (He delivered handsomely by choosing for me Natalie Merchant’s first solo CD.) Not to belabor the point, but when I was a kid, little me hated it when my parents broke up sibling arguments without taking the time resolve the squabble, which left us without closure. Instead of discussing the issues that led to the squabbles, my siblings and I would try to kill each other with sulky, seething stares from afar. As an adult, I just think my parents’ attempt was pointless. I wish I could end this paragraph by describing the awesome gift the other brother chose for me after his box of love, but sadly I don’t remember. I asked him while writing this post and he doesn’t recall either. I remember the surprise and awe (hence the awesome gift moniker) when I unwrapped it and it was a large box. And no, it was not another Star Trek starship.
This brings up another moment that can occur in the gift giving and receiving procedure. What is really behind the gesture when you are given an unfortunate gift? Sometimes the giver really means well but makes unimpressive choices or he/she just doesn’t know you well (i.e. when you have to buy the boss or coworker a gift). I once worked at a college that had a very kind front desk receptionist. Every day she wore fashionable clothes and maintained an elegant appearance at all times. She was an older woman who grew up at a time when and men felt naked without wearing hats, gloves and perfectly pressed clothes.
I am the opposite. I trim my nails but skip the manicure, painted nails and make-up. Call it unintended au naturel. Some days I choose my clothes based on their uncrumpled nature, proximity to arm’s reach and my tardiness to work. Apparently, I fell below this immaculate lady’s standards when she gave me a gift of a travel nail care kit for my birthday. She never gave anyone else a gift on their birthday. For some odd reason she included a kid’s mini play calculator and a girl-sized mirror. The lady’s granddaughter had a birthday a few days before mine so I knew my math and hygiene skills passed muster, but I got the manicure message. While I got the hint, I was too lazy and too poor to follow up on being a better-groomed woman. I don’t have the funds or motivation to get a manicure, push back my nail beds, much less paint my nails, and with failing eyesight, I’m happy enough when I succeed in trimming my nails evenly. I understood the woman’s wont to be the department mom/grandmother but I wish she hadn’t focused on my nails. It could have been more uncomfortable if I got a tiny Dora the Explorer toothbrush and toothpaste set.
Sometimes my most questionable gifts have come from my parents. My gift expectations doesn’t always align with their intentions. When I was eleven or so, I patted down my stocking. I got excited because the shape seemed to indicate, an electronic handheld game of Donkey Kong or Tetris.
But my younger brothers and I each pulled out calculators. It was those high school/college calculators that included sine, cosine and other fancy buttons. How many elementary schoolkids yearn for an advanced calculator for Christmas? Not us. My parents’ actions seemed to strengthen the Asian mien towards the importance of education, but I’d have liked a more fun educational gift. A more appreciable electronic gift would have been an Atari. Hey, it improves concentration and hand-eye coordination. The most fun my younger brothers and I got out of those calculators on Christmas was making upside down words on the screen by putting in number combinations. Years later that handy calculator became my best friend as I navigated through the confusion of calculus.
Another questionable gift came years later when I was an adult. I unwrapped 6 pairs of socks. It sounds harmless enough. However, these were not cute striped Christmas socks. They were a pile of never worn 30 years old socks for kids. Yes, I am short but I am a petite woman who prefers adult-size socks. As for age, these pairs were showing their age with brown dry rot on each pair and the label wrapped around each pair had left a brown, sticky gummy residue. I couldn’t begin to imagine why they thought I’d want them much less taken the effort to wrap this mess into a Christmas present. Why or where would I wear too-small, rotting kindergarten socks? I don’t know what their intentions were but their expectant expressions told me this was definitely not a gag gift. It caught me off-guard.
I had no prepared expression for that kind of situation. This gift came after I received a thoughtful gift of cutlery from them so I know my parents harbored no ill will behind the sock surprise. I think I just said, huh, made a lame joke, but definitely left out a thanks. Personally, I thought the trash can deserved that Christmas gift more than me. Aren’t we supposed tip unsung people who help us out during year? Why not the ever-present, ever-handy wastebasket? At least I am sure I’m not being specifically targeted to receive questionable gifts from my parents. My brother once received a blood pressure wrist cuff monitor from my parents for his birthday. Perhaps, in their mind, they believe that every healthy young male in their 20’s would want and need blood pressure monitors. That was my brother’s huh moment.
Before this post becomes an ungrateful rant to people who’ve given me questionable gifts, I’d like to include some of my best gifts which have come from my parents, siblings and other family members. I have received, without any prompting from a letter to Santa (I learned early that “Santa” never read my careful lists), the exciting game of Laser Tag, a humungous polar bear, and a tiny black-and-white portable tv in my childhood. That tv gift may have been influenced by my uncle. He happened to mention to my parents the types of gifts he bestowed on his beloved (slightly spoiled) daughter. After getting the educational Christmas gift of a high school calculator the previous year, there was no need to fake an appreciative expression when that tv was revealed the next year.
Interestingly, that gift adversely affected my middle school education. When I was confronted by math anxiety and difficult long division, it was an easy decision to watch Star Trek rather than tackle pesky remainders. The tv was an awful neon pink, the screen tiny and nothing was in color, but I was lucky that Star Trek re-runs was the show I picked to skip homework. Since it was made in the late 60’s, the show made sure that those without color TV sets could enjoy the show just as those with color. Needless to say, that tv’s compact size made it easy for me to hide it so that when my parents came into my room to check on me, I’d just slide a Star Trek book over the still warm screen.
Two last things. I chose gift-giving and receiving gifts because the act can make it seem like so much is riding on the how to give and to receive said gifts. Gifts are used to express important messages: love, joy, gratitude, subtle messages or attempts to maintain courtesy (e.g. gifts to the boss). As for me, I believe I think a lot about it, and maybe hold high expectations (on my or others’ gift choices) because I have been the recipient of wonderful gifts. Or if the specific gift has escaped my memory, my mind can easily remember the joy of receiving a tangible thought of love. The odd gifts that have fallen on my lap are so memorable because the majority of the gifts I have received over the years show me how well people love and know me to the point of surprising me with unexpected gifts that I did not know I wanted or needed until I unwrapped the gift. I know as a gift giver how incredibly frustrating and impossible it is to succeed in finding suitable gifts, but it is a joy when the gift planets align to create that moment.
Lastly, yes, the original Star Trek series was kitschy and campy, and the spin-offs have more CGI and pizazz, but I think the original show’s idealistic ideas of diversity and equality amid the tumultuous 60’s transcends even William Shatner’s overacting. Also I couldn’t help having a middle-school crush over McCoy’s comic relief to Spock’s pragmatism. And that’s why my brother bought me the complete starship collection. But I’m a Trekkie novel rather than a Trekkie figurine kind of girl. Live long and prosper to another gift-exchange occassion.