Friday, January 21, 2011

Gift Exchange - Cultural Differences

This story best illustrates why Anil’s mother can be a difficult person to interact with.

Already three months in advance of my visit at Anil’s parents place I started thinking what kind of gifts I could bring for them. It was a challenging task for several reasons: (1) in general, it is difficult to think about a good gift for somebody you never met; (2) we are talking here about parents of somebody I planned on marrying and on whom I really wanted to make a good impression; (3) they are older people who do not seem to have too many needs; (4) because of additional cultural differences, e.g. most likely a bottle of a good Californian wine would not be appreciated by them.

I asked Anil to help me figure out a nice gift for them, but he was not very helpful. After a lot of nagging from my side, he suggested getting a Ganesha statue for his mother and some “inspirational” books for his father. I tried very hard to find a nice statue but, unfortunately, I did not manage. All the ones that I saw (both in Indian shops and in the internet) were not aesthetically pleasing and from materials that did not seem to be of high quality (*). So instead of the statue, I bought for Anil's mother a small notebook with a picture of Ganesha and I got two good (in my opinion) inspirational books for his father.

(*) Later, during our trip to Ajanta/Ellora, we did succeed in finding a very nice Ganesha statue and we gave it to Anil's mother.

I also bothered several other people about appropriate gifts for this occasion. One of them was my very supportive lab mate Arjumand, who comes from the same city where Anil’s parents live. She did not have any brilliant ideas, but she confirmed that getting nice chocolates seemed like a good and safe idea.

A group of Indian girls that I met through Anil at one of the parties also did not come up with anything good. After a few minutes of intense thinking and discussion, they came up with the idea that I already thought of myself: to get a nice table cloth.

In the end I decided to give to Anil’s parents several kinds of Polish chocolates, a box of Californian chocolates, an ajour tablecloth made by my aunt, two books for Anil’s father, two books and a small notebook with a picture of Ganesha for his mother. More than half of my luggage was occupied by those gifts.

On the first evening in Hyderabad I offered all those gifts to Anil’s mother. She was very resistant to take them and it took a lot of talking from my side to make her accept them. First she took the chocolates, but she immediately complained that she and her husband would not be able to eat them as their stomachs did not tolerate sweets anymore (pity that Anil had not warned me about that…). I suggested she could offer those chocolates to the guests, but she promptly replied that they never had guests. Then I suggested giving the chocolates to the kids of their driver, but she also did not think it was a good idea as she thought that they were anyway spoiling him and his family too much… The only gift that she seemed to be accepting without resistance was the small notebook with the picture of Ganesha. She refused to accept the tablecloth without even opening it, and she did accept the books, but again, she only opened one or two of them, others leaving still wrapped.

For a week she did not take care of moving the gifts from the place where she put them on that first evening. They only disappeared from there a few minutes before her brother was coming to visit. She did not want him to see me or the gifts. I was asked to go to the upstairs apartment and stay there until called back.

A week later, on my last day in India, Anil’s mother decided that she should give me a gift too. At first she wanted to get me a petite coat for the sari that I had bought, but later that idea got abandoned as she did not feel strong enough to leave the house. So then she decided to give me money. She tried to hand over to me a pile containing unknown amount of American dollars, but I refused to accept it. I used the argument that in Europe it is not well seen to give somebody money. Anil was present when it all was happening and I was carefully observing his face trying to figure out if I should accept the money from his mother or not. I did not pick up any cue that would tell me that it would be wrong from my side to refuse this gift. So I decided not to take it.

A few hours after that event I started a serious conversation with Anil's mother that was aimed at understanding why she had such strong objections against Anil and me being together. One of many things that she told me during that conversation was that I was disrespectful towards her by not accepting her generous gift and that I caused her lots of problems with the gifts I had given to her. She said that even though she did not like them, she accepted them, just not to hurt my feelings. She added that because of my gifts she would actually loose money! She said she would need to spend 300 rupees (equivalent of 6$) on fuel so that the driver brings the chocolates to the orphanage and another 250 rupees (5$) again on fuel to have books delivered to the library… As calmly as I could, I asked her to use the money I did not accept to cover those fuel expanses and donate the rest of the money to the charity.

Anil says that it was a mistake on my part not to accept his mother's gift. I can see why he would think that - in Indian culture having a guest at one's house is considered to be an honor, and it is more common for the guest to receive a gift from the host, than the other way around. I knew that, but it is my believe that gifts should only be given if they are meant whole-heartedly.

I also have to admit that since Anil and I got engaged, his mother completely changed her attitude towards me and is not only super-nice towards me, but also showers me with thoughtful gifts. (I do not care about the gifts, but I do appreciate the though and effort she is putting into them. I know that it is her way of welcoming me to their family.)