The Art of the Gift

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, December 12, 2007.

The strangest gift I ever received was a single slice of bread.

I was on my bike at a street corner in Japan, waiting for the light to change. An elderly woman pedaled up next to me and stopped to wait too. Noticing me, she got off her bike and rooted in the bags in her basket, muttering all the while. Then she came over, muttering still, and placed something in my basket. I stood puzzled as the light changed and she rode off. The item she gave me was a single, individually packaged slice of bread.

I think of this woman now that it’s, once again, the season of gifts.

With stores opening at 4 a.m. after Thanksgiving, holiday shopping is a frenzy, and the mounds of stuff under our trees are positively obscene. So it is in our capitalist country. Gotta keep that ol’ economy growing!

But I have some fond memories of gifts of Christmas past.

The weirdest present I received was as a child, when my mom gave my sisters and me matching plastic-molded wigs – one gold, one silver, one black.  In a photo that could be used for blackmail, there we stand, the three sisters (two of us missing front teeth), grinning foolishly in our plastic wigs.

The best Christmas present I received was my daughter, who decided to be born two weeks early, on her grandpa’s birthday, so I wouldn’t have to spend Christmas in the maternity ward. Her first Christmas gift was a trip to meet that grandfather whose day she shares.

My mother says she can’t give someone a gift she doesn’t like herself. (Maybe she wanted one of those wigs?) My son thinks the same way, but a problem arises when he wants to keep the gift himself.

Ideally, all gifts are free – of cost as well as emotional strings. Suppose your daughter asks for books, but you’d really like her to have, say, a canopy bed, just because you think she should have one or you never had one yourself.

Give the books. If nothing else, they’re cheaper and easier to wrap.

The rules for gifts grow more complex every year. So many things to consider. Too many expectations.  Gift cards.  Re-gifting. Perhaps it’s cliché to say, but the best presents aren’t usually things.

The most important point in giving is that the gift is not about you. (Yes guys, we all know who those Victoria’s Secrets items are really for.)  Choosing an appropriate gift means you must pay attention to the one who receives it. If you can’t find a thing, you can always give your time, affection or appreciation. But that’s so much harder to give.

In any gift exchange, the chances are good you’ll receive something you don’t really want. When that happens, it’s just good manners to recognize the sincere effort of the giver. As Mick Jagger sang it, you can’t always get what you want. And we all have to learn to live with disappointment.

I have no idea what motivated the woman in Japan that day, but I appreciate her gesture.

What do you do when someone gives you a slice of bread?

Make toast.

One Country, Two Men

Every morning I wake up with immigrants.  One in my bed.  One at the bus stop.

The one in my bed is the lucky one.  Lucky to have me, perhaps, but more so because he came here from Japan, a country Americans respect. Like most other immigrants, he came looking for personal freedom and opportunity. He is the epitome of the diligent and hard-working Asian. Highly educated. Highly skilled. Productive and industrious, in a field where his skills are in demand. Just the sort of person we want to come here.

And yet, his journey was not easy.  Because he’s in medicine, he was subject to restrictions that other immigrants are not. He was fully trained and licensed in Japan,  but because the U.S. doesn’t recognize medical training from other countries (except Canada), he had to repeat 7 years of training here and return to Japan for 2 more years before he was eligible for a green card, regardless of his marriage to me, an American citizen. It was a grueling odyssey during which he nearly collapsed, but now he’s living the American dream. Home and children. Good job. A martini before dinner.

The man at the bus stop is not so lucky. He came from Mexico – legally — 14 years ago, after his butcher shop failed when NAFTA destroyed the surrounding farms and ranches. At first it was picking tomatoes in California, then a series of manual jobs till he landed at the farm across the road, where he tends horses and, with his wife, is raising two daughters. He also works a second job at a restaurant across town. In the meantime, he studies for his GED.

José and his family live in a disintegrating rental trailer on the horse farm, but the owner is selling the farm and has told him to find somewhere else to live and work. He managed to save up money for a down payment on a house. But the horse farm owner, an elderly and increasingly ornery man, wouldn’t vouch for him with the mortgage company, and so he lost the house, and his $3,000 down payment.

As the work at the horse farm dwindled,  José worked maintenance at a nearby casino and considered getting another job 20 miles away. He has finally found a new job in town. Before he began, however,  he had to have an emergency appendectomy, with no insurance, and his visa expired when the regional immigration office got bogged down in a backlog of applications. No one has been able to sponsor him for a green card.

José, a man of pride, is also smart, hard-working and diligent. He too is just the sort of person we want here. But there is no happy ending for him. He now works nights cleaning floors at a health club. No house. No martini.

If I could save him from this string of calamities, I would. But I have no avenue to help other than to commiserate with him as we wait for our children’s school bus. So I look for ways to help that he can’t trace back to me. Anonymously paying off the rental bill for his daughter’s flute at the music store where my children take lessons. Leaving a tip at the health club at Christmas time, a small number of bills tucked into an unsigned greeting card.  It’s my apology for how my country has treated him.