Sunday, May 15, 2011

Gift Giving

Andean societies value reciprocity. People engage in frequent, non-quantified exchanges, in which I give you something today, and though I keep no kind of record, I know that sometime in the future you will give something back to me. This form of give and take keeps people connected through ongoing ties of obligation and friendship. It is a foundation of community in Andean society.

As we go and immerse ourselves in this kind of society, we would do well to remember that we are immediately entering into a relationship in which we are, and probably always will remain, indebted. The people in Bolivia who welcome us into their homes and their lives may be compensated for their efforts, but what we take away from the experience far outstrips the money we pay for our homestays and language classes. Going in with this awareness can inspire in us a sense of humility, which can ground us and help us appreciate what we are giving and what we are gaining from this exchange.

As you enter your homestay, remember that you are under no obligation to offer a gift to your homestay family. People will certainly not expect anything from you, asking only that you respect house rules and comport yourself as would a member of the family. Still, giving a gift is a nice way to thank people in advance for their generosity in taking you into their home, a way of immediately trying to address that balance sheet on which you are always in the role of debtor. While I am not necessarily the best judge of what homestay families might like to receive, the following is a list of gifts that have worked for others in the past. Readers of this blog, please add to this list based on your own experience:

• hand towels or bath towels (the soft fluffy kind)
• small kitchen items
• books and magazines, in English or Spanish
• small hand tools
• toys for children
• scarves, jewelry, clothing
• baby clothes
• small household items
• something from your university - a t-shirt or sweatshirt, perhaps
• electronics

Whatever you offer will be accepted with gratitude and appreciation.


amyet said...

Child beggars are increasingly becoming a problem in China and I often find I'm at a loss for what to "give" knowing that their handlers may be watching closeby. I know some people give candy or snacks. These gifts have their place and while they may be an obvious solution to hunger, they may not have the best consequences. A friend recently told me that she tried buying steamed buns for a group of children when suddenly a man, claiming to be the father, thanked her for "finding all of his children in one place" before whisking them away empty handed. During my time in Cochabamba, a few of us frequently bought meals for some of the shoe shiners. One child told me he wasn't allowed to eat that day because his mother was concerned he was spending too much time eating and having fun rather than earning money shining shoes.

Someone recently told me that he collects hotel soaps and shampoos and briefly sits with street children to teach them a song about washing their hands. We take this for granted but it's a "skill" and resource that few have access to. Pens, crayons, stickers, and balloons are also great gifts that are small enough to not be a burden in your bag, or a burden for the child once they take them home.

Beth Behr said...

Thank you for sharing. I use a gift giving service and it makes things a whole lot easier.