This post started life in the “Tips for leaving” post but the more I thought about it and remembered various leavings, the more I wanted to make it its own creature.
You’re leaving a place you’ve called home for quite a while, a few years at least. You’ve acquired things you want to take home and someone is paying for the privileged. Everything you own has to be scrutinised and assessed. Do you like it well enough to pay to move it to another country? What on earth are you going to do with it if not? If you’re lucky, sometime close to your departure date and possible after your shipment has already gone, people might like you enough to throw you a farewell party. These are usually lovely, happy and sad, a mix of highly complicated emotions already… and then someone comes along and gives you a present.
Cards on the table – I adore presents. I love giving them, I love receiving them. I am horrible at waiting for whatever occasion I’ve bought something for and only moving to a different hemisphere, manic list making and reviewing the contents of the present cupboard before I leave for any form of reunion holiday (yes, I have a presents cupboard) actually stops me from perpetually doubling up on presents for loved ones. The point here is that I’m not one to ever turn down the opportunity to give or receive a gift. That said, even I’ve been baffled by some of the leaving presents I’ve seen.
It’s such a hard situation. You are leaving the country and space is limited. Clearly people have gone out of their way to try and do something nice and you want to be gracious and respect the effort but so many times, I’ve looked at presents and wondered what on earth had possessed the people giving them, especially when the people going home have been doing so on their own dime. Don’t get me wrong, the presents in question have, often, been stunningly beautiful and sometimes weirdly expensive gifts. Someone’s put a lot of time and money into choosing them but size, weight, delicacy and timing are very real and crucial considerations to anyone heading home. We’re going to have to pay to get this thing home, one way or another, and that often just serves to make the situation more bizarre.
Luckily, I haven’t had to be the one graciously hiding my “Well WTF do I do with THIS” thoughts from an eager and well meaning friend or colleague but I’ve watched it so many times, I just couldn’t help but write this. The strangest gifts I’ve ever seen people give expats leaving a country, and in no particular order, are:
- A beautiful, delicately carved porcelain Chinese tea set in a wooden box that had itself been carved to be a specialist tea stand. It was gorgeous, extremely breakable and very, very, very heavy. It was the sort of thing that might have been okay on an expat package with fully paid shipping but for a student paying to send herself home with very little extra money, it was, well, awkward.
- A bottle of extraordinarily expensive snake wine. If you haven’t come across this, it’s a eastern Asian thing that involves a bottle of “wine” (usually spirits) and snakes that were either dead before they entered the bottle and had wine poured over them or woke up in the bottle to drown in very bad temper in the “wine”. It’s said to have all sorts of mythological benefits. It’s also illegal to take across most borders and loathed by quarantine and animal welfare officers the world over. That this bottle was given to an Australian about to head to the airport by someone who should have been familiar with Australian import laws was the most mind-boggling aspect of this present. We still don’t know if the giver wanted the recipient jailed or had just lost his mind but the bottle met a very inauspicious end in a garbage bin.
- A wooden vase made from knotty and burred Indonesian wood. This is another Australian thing. Wood going into Australian is heavily scrutinised, especially something like knotty or burred wood that might contain bugs. Since a relative had made it by hand and presented it at the airport with great ceremony, the poor recipient just had to deal with the Quarantine fury that descended on his head when his bags were inspected at home (he got the vase back but it had to be x-ray treated at considerable expense).
- Multiple pieces of large artwork, all packed for travel. This one is fraught because the friend in question had always wanted these paintings and decided he just couldn’t justify them. His team surprised him on his last day with them but hauling a reinforced canvas poster tube four and a half feet tall up to an airline check in desk along with all your emigration luggage basically requires that you also bring a blank cheque to pay for the fees you know they’re going to charge you.
- A delicate, fine paper cutting in a red damask box lined in gold silk that also happened to be well over 3 feet long (the box). The paper cutting itself was two and a half feet wide, proclaimed long life for the recipient and didn’t fit into a single suitcase or poster tube that he could buy. The whole thing was too delicate to wrap in cardboard and send oversized baggage or post. I don’t actually know what happened to it and haven’t been game to ask.
- A pure gold necklace from a distant work colleague, with weight value certificate included. The type of thing you can’t really thank someone for in any manner that feels appropriate and think “well, now what?” when Customs asks you to certify that you aren’t bringing in gifts, including jewellery, over a certain value.
- A fine, delicately carved, jade handled silk fan of indeterminate age purporting to be an antique. Another odd moment. You can’t take anything made before 1966 out of China without a permission certificate saying its not of cultural value and you can’t legally take anything older than 1946 out of the country at all, regardless of where it was made. No one knew if it was an antique of the genuine type or of the “we made it last week at the antiques market” type. The baffled recipient toyed with leaving it then spent their entire trip home wondering if they were actually going to be allowed leave China and if their shipment would be allowed to follow.
- Throwing stars, those star shaped knives that ninjas throw at each other in B grade action movies and which abound at Chinese fakes markets. I’m hoping it was a joke but since both giver and receiver were of the “frat boy who never grew up” school of Chinese expat, I’m not so sure. Neither is in jail though so the stars can’t have gone home (not even the most provincial airport is going to miss throwing stars on a security scan).
- A pressure cooker. This one was actually me and I was elated. It took me about a week to realise it wasn’t actually a sensible or practical gift from a friend who remains a good friend. I was at the end of a quarter long secondment and madly trying to ship home a cherry red pressure cooker really confused DHL. Since it’s gone from Mumbai to Sydney, moved a few times there, moved to Shanghai, is now back in Mumbai and has been used in all of those places, it was clearly a great gift but I had moments trying to get it home during which I was less than enamoured with it.
If I had to offer gift giving advice, I’d say post it wherever they are going, they’ll appreciate it so much you wouldn’t believe it. If you absolutely, positively have to give it in person, know if a person has a shipment going and give gifts before it leaves. Avoid things that are hugely heavy or exquisitely breakable, antiques including fake antiques, items of significant value unless you know the person well enough to actually justify it and things that will have them jailed wherever they are going (snake wine and throwing stars, I’m looking at you) unless, of course, you don’t really like them all that much and that’s the point, in which case, gift on.