Omiyage is such a confusing thing when you’re the person in the “position of power”, as it were. When you’re friends, or coworkers, it makes sense that there’s a balance between the both of you giving each other souvenirs.
“Ugh,” you groan while on the beach in Okinawa, “I have to buy chocolates for work or the Boss and everyone else will hate my guts.” So you drag yourself to the nearest souvenir shop, select the biggest, cheapest box of individually wrapped stuff you can find, and boom, done. And you’re perfectly content knowing that Tanaka-san in Finance is going to do the exact same thing, as is Rachel in HR and whoever else you deal with on a regular basis.
When it’s friends, of course, a bit more thought goes into it. “Fancy chopsticks! K-chan’ll like these.” “Ooh, a youkai-themed set of sweets? I know someone who’ll go for this.” And again, you’ll be content, because you know that those people also would pick out individual things for you based on what they know you like, so it’s all good.
But if you’re a teacher?
Pictured above are four different gifts: chopsticks from Vietnam, a snowflake from Germany, and tea and soap from Nepal. Each from adult students who apparently thought enough of me to get individual things for me while adventuring abroad.
How do you even respond to that?
I feel like omiyage gets complicated from here, because as a teacher, you’re of course already “giving” the students something- your time, your instruction, your advice, etc. And if you’ve made enough of an impact on their lives, they’ll get you gifts to thank you for what you’re doing for them.
However, at the same time, isn’t it natural that a teacher teach a student? It feels like you’re getting a “tip” in addition to what you’re actually owed–that is, the student’s time and attention to whatever you’re teaching. So I’m left feeling like I need to give something tangible in response.
If you’re “higher up” as it were, what’s an appropriate gift? What works?
I’m sure those of you better versed in Japanese culture than I am are out there, rolling your eyes at my lack of understanding- and if you’re out there, please do advise! But here’s what I do to ease my conscience:
Nothing crazy- usually simple sugar or chocolate chip cookies. Something I can make without having to go to the store to get special ingredients.
This appeases my American tendencies to “feed people I like”, and the homemade cookies help me feel like they’re “worth” enough to give to the students. The cookies, while simple, still cost my time and attention, and that seems like an equivalent exchange to what they have been giving me.
I’m likely entirely wrong in my assumptions, but students have responded positively enough to the gifts thus far. Perhaps they’re enjoying my clueless American self (or at least the free food), but so long as nobody’s getting offended, that’s what’s important in my mind.
People who live and work in Japan, regardless of your choice of employment- how do you deal with omiyage? Do you not bother with it at all? Do you know every nuance to it? Are you in the middle like me, where you know omiyage is needed but don’t know where to draw the line? Let me know!