The other day I received a generous gift for nothing more than welcoming a parent to school during my prep time (and not asking her to wait to see me until conferences.)
It was a lovely present – 12 palm-sized bottles of red ginseng and 8 pop-tart sized packets of – more red ginseng. I don’t know if any of you take ginseng (or know what it’s for if you do) but I do not. I’m gathering up the gumption for it. Really I am. It smells quite a lot like…earth. The little glass jars with beautiful red labels and hangul lettering are like a private apothecary. I feel like Dr. Jekyll swirling the concoction around diabolically, worried I’ll turn into Hyde if I drink it.
I’ve asked students and Korean colleagues what ginseng is good for. “Your health!” they answer, with little patience. “I know,” I reply, “but what part of my health?” “All of it!” they tell me. “Are you sure?” I ask. “No!” they admit with gusto.
Gifts are given in Korea for many reasons. And for no reason at all. One day I let a student borrow an earring from me and on the following day she brought me a handmade bookmark and a mug full of chocolates in return. I have received cupcakes and cookies from students on their birthdays. For writing students’ recommendations, I was given two English tea mugs, a tin business card holder, fish oil and fresh bread. Not all from the same person. At our first round of conferences in the fall, I received hand lotion, perfume, lipstick, room deodorizer, amazing pastries and a beautiful hair barrette made of jade.
Last month, Luke spent the night at his friend Hung-gu’s house and when his mother brought him home, she gave me a vibrant yellow umbrella. We have received honey, cooking oils, seaweed wraps, soap, shampoo/conditioner, half-dried persimmons, boxer shorts, pens, dried squid, socks, cases of noodles and boxes of plastic gloves. I don’t need the gifts and I don’t expect them. But it’s a lovely thing Koreans do – celebrating and thanking each other every little whip stitch. It makes a person feel celebrated. And who doesn’t like a little of that?