Gift Giving in Korea: 5 Gifts to Give Your Korean Co-Workers

two-handed givingOne of the interesting, and slightly stressful, customs I’ve learned to accept and embrace while teaching in Korea is gift giving in the office. The most important time for gift giving in Korea is when a new employee receives their first paycheck. It is customary to give colleagues a gift as a form of celebration. When my first paycheck came in the bank, I was filled with a mix of joy and dread. I smiled and cringed at the amount of Won in my possession.

The truth is gift giving just isn’t my forte. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m one of those “here’s a gift card, don’t spend it all in one place” types of gift givers. As if the stress of finding the absolute perfect gift for a close friend or family member isn’t terrible enough in my own culture, I’m now expected to give gifts to co-workers, who a month into my new job were essentially strangers, in a new culture. To make matters worse, gift cards haven’t hit South Korea as hard as they have in America. Gift cards are seen as impersonal and cold, so I was forced to actually shop around for presents. I pouted as I wandered around dozens of department stores because I was afraid of purchasing a gift that would somehow offend my Korean counterparts. After leaving 3 stores empty handed and still out of ideas, I did what any smart foreigner would do. I waited to see what types of gifts the Korean teachers gave each other before I went out to buy mine. I noticed 5 gifts seemed to be more popular, so I jotted them down to share below with you.

1. Baked goods

Homemade desserts have the reputation of being the most thoughtful gift. The time and effort spent on mixing dough, measuring milk, and icing all the burnt sides of a cake (I’m starting to question my baking skills) are said to show a person you truly care about them. Your Korean apartment won’t have an oven, and unless you have an entire week to bake 100 cookies in your tiny toaster oven, I suggest you take my advice. Run out to your local pastry shop to buy tiny pastries and gift bags. This is actually the route I went when it was my turn to purchase presents. Everyone loved the effort I put into bagging the treats and called me “kind girl” all day. (I may have even let a few co-workers think I baked the croissants myself, but let’s keep that between us.)

2. Soaps

Decorative soaps are another gift that is best when homemade, but who has the time or recipe to make homemade soaps for a staff of 20? I sure didn’t, and I’ll bet a thousand won you won’t either. You can usually find small soaps in the shapes of flowers or hearts at the nearest HomePlus. Again, buying gift bags and bagging the slippery little suckers yourself will be greatly appreciated. On a side note: If you happen to receive a gift bag with what appears to be gummy hearts, don’t bite into them. They’re decorative soaps! Learn from my sad and embarrassing mistake.

3. Towels

One of the great things about the Korean office is the dental hygiene that takes place. After lunch, everyone grabs their toothbrush and races to the bathroom to scrub their pearly whites. One of the gifts the office received during the paycheck celebration period was personal wash clothes. They were given in a variety of colors and given in cute little star stamped boxes. Now, everyone at the office grabs their toothbrush and towel before trying to beat each other to the bathroom sinks.

4. Keychains

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend this gift because not everyone has a car to add a keychain to their car keys, and no one has house keys in Korea because all of the house doors use electronic keypads for entry. My personal feelings aside, keychains seem to be a popular item to give. If you can bring some from your home country to have ready for this gift giving occasion, you’d really impress your new work family.

5. Rice cakes

Of all the presents that have ever been given in Korea for any occasion, rice cakes will always be the most popular. These sticky yet sweet little treats are the most popular present given in the office. Someone got a first paycheck? You get rice cakes. Someone just got married? You get rice cakes. Your co-teacher visited Jeju Island? Well, you’ll actually get oranges because Jeju is famous for them, but you get my point! Rice cakes are famous. You’ll be sure to impress all of your new colleagues by gifting them with a present that they won’t expect you to know about!

Although you’re a foreigner and your co-workers will understand if you don’t participate in their customs, try to be a sport about it all. Immersing yourself in the new culture means practicing Korean customs just as native Koreans do. Observing the customs of your new culture will not only impress your colleagues by showing you care and are eager to learn, but it will expand your thinking. I’ve never met people who are as kind and generous as Koreans, and participating in customs like this helps me to understand their selfless thinking. I hope you are able to find the perfect gift. Happy shopping!

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