I hated giving my late father-in-law, Joe, gifts — or rather I hated shopping for such gifts, until my husband and I discovered a creative approach.
When my husband, Scott, and I were engaged, Joe and my late mother-in-law, Lilly, showed me their boxes of loose family pictures. That Christmas, wanting to please my new in-laws, I gave them a photo album.
Joe gave it back. "I don't need this," he said, scowling. "You take it back."
I was horrified. What a lack of manners, I thought. I was raised to believe that "It's the thought that counts," and to accept all gifts with appreciation.
In Joe's culture, I later learned, that's not the custom. My in-laws came from China, where the etiquette of gift giving is different than in our Palo Alto pocket of Middle America. Scott, who grew up straddling two different cultures, was mystified by his dad's behavior. In one culture was the bubble in which Scott was raised, with his parents' old-world thinking. In the other was the dominant American culture that also exerted a strong influence.
The result was often a man and his parents who had difficulty understanding each other.
To try to bridge that gap at Christmas, Scott and I looked up online the Chinese etiquette of gift giving. A person receiving a gift, one article said, should humbly express doubt to the giver that they had much use for the gift so as not to appear greedy.
Joe's habit of giving gifts back was, apparently, his own touch.
On Joe's next birthday he gave Scott back an electric toothbrush. His low-tech one worked just fine. On Christmas, it was a box of chocolates. "These aren't good for me," Joe said.
"Doesn't it bother you when he does that?" I asked Scott.
"No, that's just the way he is," he said. I, however, dreaded gift shopping for Joe. Try as we could, he rarely wanted anything we gave him.
We didn't like many of Joe's gifts either. One Christmas he gave Scott a pair of plastic hands to hold our TV and stereo remote controls in. They were supposed to sit on top of our TV. Another time Joe gave Scott hangers with foldout brushes attached. To this day we have never figured out what the brushes were supposed to brush.
The next Christmas Scott unwrapped a four-pack of Budweiser that only had two packs in it. Joe must have enjoyed the other two. I opened a package of mini apple pies that didn't look much healthier than the box of chocolates. As always, we thanked him, and never once did we give Scott's parents back a gift.
Then Joe opened my gift. It was something I was convinced he needed: a bag of groceries. As we watched Joe peer inside the brown paper bag, I waited in anxiety. Without a word, he pulled each item out one by one. Putting aside the chow mein noodles, oolong tea, soy sauce, almond tea cookies and half the vegetables, he loaded the cornstarch and other vegetables back in the bag and handed it to me. "Why you give me all those vegetables?" he asked in his gravelly Toi San accent. "I can't eat them all; they will spoil!"
Lilly never gave back gifts, but when she gave them to me she always told me to give them back if I didn't like them. Of course I never did.
One year Lilly decided Joe had gone too far. We took a trip to Norway where Scott got Joe a Dale of Norway sweater.
"Why are you getting him a sweater?" I asked. "He'll just give it back. You won't be able to return it."
"That's OK. I think Dad will like this. Do you think I should get him a size small or medium?" Joe usually wore a small, Scott added.
"Better get a medium. That way if he gives it back you can wear it."
Scott got the medium.
"I can't wear this," his dad said when he pulled it out of its bag. "It's a size medium. You know I wear a small. You take it back." I rolled my eyes. It was my idea to get the size medium. Now it was my fault he didn't want it.
"Scott can't return it to the store," Lilly said, her voice rising in volume and pitch. "It's in Norway!"
"You send it back to the store," Joe said, holding it out toward Scott.
After a verbal scuffle, Lilly stood up and faced him. "He can't return it to Norway. Scott bought you a special Norwegian sweater, and you are so rude you won't accept it. Now you take that sweater and thank him for it right now."
"I have to agree with Lilly," I said, emboldened by her momentous stance. Joe pulled the hand holding the sweater back, looking down in defeat.
"Say thank you," Lilly said.
"Thank you," he mumbled. It was one of the few times I'd ever heard him say those words.
After that we began to get creative, which helped immensely in reducing anxiety — to the point where I enjoyed "shopping for Joe" from then on.
Perhaps other holiday shoppers can benefit from our discovery: Scott and I decided that the thing to do wasn't to get Joe something we thought he wanted. It was to get him something we wanted. I happily took back a set of ceramic plates with a beautiful plum-blossom design when Joe complained they were too heavy.
The next Christmas I discovered a large box of chocolates Scott had chosen for his dad.
"But Scott," I protested, "you can't give him those. Remember last time? He'll just give them back." Scott looked me in the eye as he nodded his head, a goofy, devious grin slowly spreading across his face.
"I know," he said.