Typically when you travel to another country with different norms than yours, you learn lessons the hard way. Here’s two examples I faced.
In 1979, when I was a nineteen-year-old studying at a Japanese university, I spent a weekend with a Japanese family who participated in a 3-day exchange program offered by the school. The family wanted to meet an American and for their teenage daughter to practice her English. I volunteered and had a lovely weekend touring the city of Gifu with the parents and daughter. In their home, I admired a woodblock print hanging on their wall. The father took it down and gave it to me. “Thank you!” I said. When I returned to the home of the Japanese family I was living with that year, my host father shook his head and looked down when I told him the story. I was so ashamed as he told me that they had to give the art to me because I admired it. I should have said “thank you but no thank you.” He pointed out the piece was signed by the artist and explained how well-known this artist was in our region of Japan. I was shamefaced.
Twenty years later I had an opposite experience in Brazil. A parent of a Deaf child I taught in Brazil, stood in the school hallway conveying her appreciation of my mentoring her daughter. She wore an odd finger watch, something I’d never seen. A small expandable band holding a tiny face. Carla took it off her finger and placed it in my palm. “For you,” she said with teary eyes. “For all you do.” Immediately I told her I couldn’t take it. I knew that watch cost her a small fortune considering the meager wages she earned. Plus, I knew I’d never wear the bulky piece of jewelry. Her face fell and I knew I said the wrong thing so commenced to back track. “I was only doing my job teaching your daughter and I don’t think I should receive anything more than my salary.” Carla lit up and explained how I could accept the watch and I would not get in trouble. It was a personal gift. I accepted it and hugged her.
Giving gifts appropriately is as important as receiving gifts. It’s quite uncomfortable and often rude to be caught without a gift in a culture that exchanges gifts. Be sure you give something that is appropriate to the occasion. I once witnessed an American woman give boxes of Ninja Turtle Band-Aids to the principal of a school in China – I wonder what she was thinking? I was caught short one time as I gave a teacher in Estonia a bag of pencils and pens for her class as I ashamedly saw that each student not only already had writing utensils, but also had electronic tablets.
Before you travel to another country, learn about gift-giving. You don’t want to be caught without a gift, or handing your host an inappropriate gift or accepting a gift when you shouldn’t be. These many years later, I still have the Japanese print on my wall and the watch in my jewelry box in remembrance of how generous people have been to me with their gifts; how kind in forgiving my cultural faux pas and to remind me to know what is expected of me before I enter another culture.