In her book The Overspent American, Juliet Shor observes that the average size of a car garage for a middle class American household has increased over years, while the number of cars that each household possesses has not increased. According to Shor, what this discrepancy suggests is that Americans use their garage space for storage, not storage of cars, but storage of stuff. I can think of many garages that support Schor’s theory. Very often, you find all kinds of things in someone’s garage, from an old coffee machine and cassette tapes to brand new bedding and a rain coat with a price tag still attached.
Does it look familiar?
A garage filled with stuff may indicate the owner’s poor organization skills as well as his or her lack of determination to get rid of unused and unwanted items. But more fundamentally, I think that many of us suffer from a First World problem – that is, we just possess too many things. We keep buying stuff. We bring an overwhelming amount of stuff into a house. What exacerbates the problem of excessive possession is, I argue, gifts.
Let me take a short detour and talk a bit about my Korean grandmother. I was brought up by my grandmother, who was born in the 1920s. The Korean war broke in 1950, and all Koreans were driven into life-threatening poverty. Nobody, except for a handful of rich elite groups, could afford three meals a day, and to make the matter worse, my grandmother lost her husband during the war. She had to support her three children on her own, and I think it is an understatement to say that feeding a family of four as a single woman required “heroic” effort from her. By the time that I was born in the 1980s, however, Koreans overcame the utter poverty of the previous decades, to the extent that most middle class family owned a car of their own. Nevertheless, my grandmother remembered vividly what poverty meant. She remembered how hunger drove her and her children almost to death. As a result, I grew up in the 80s with the spirit of the 50s. My grandmother saw to it that I never threw away anything. When I was a child, I never had clean scratch paper. When I was allowed to throw away a piece of paper, it was because the piece was all covered with letters and numbers and there was no space to write one more letter on it. When I opened a gift, I had to be very careful with the wrapping paper, because my grandma wanted to save the wrapping paper for future uses. She saved everything. When she saw a tiny bolt on a street, for example, she picked it up and saved it at home. A tiny piece of metal wire, she saved it, because, to quote her, “you never know when you need it.” If I did not finish all the food on my plate, I had to listen to her long sermon on how a farmer had to work his ass off to put a bowl of rice on my table. And the food I did not finish eating went to the refrigerator for an afternoon snack. An interesting thing is that despite her obsessive habit to save everything, our house never overflowed with things.
There can be many ways to explain the differences between the scarcely packed Korean house from my childhood, on the one hand, and the American garage on the verge of explosion, on the other. Today, I think that one possible theory involves gift giving.
I love giving and receiving gifts, and I truly appreciate the warm heart of the person who gets me a gift. By the same token, when I buy a gift for someone, I select it carefully, hoping that it doesn’t go straight into my friend’s garage. Despite my hope, however, I know that it does happen. And I know that it happens, because some of the gifts that I receive go straight into my garage. After our wedding, my husband and I noticed that our storage got filled at an amazing speed. To make sure that things in the closet didn’t make babies while I was not at home, I went through what was in the closet. And I found that many of the closet residents, so to speak, were gifts: wedding gifts, Christmas gifts, birthday gifts, etc. Again, I appreciate the kindness of the gift givers, and it is unfair to them that I complain about their gifts on my blog. If I am nonetheless allowed to say a few words about their gifts, however, I would say that their gifts are such nice, luxury items that I don’t use them in my busy, hectic everyday life. Someone got us pretty, delicate glass decorations for a Christmas tree, but I am too lazy to make a Christmas tree every year. Someone got me a nice apron, but when I cook, I am so hungry and so in a hurry that I don’t bother with an apron. Someone got me a nice winter hat, but oh, I have such a big head and no hat fits my head. Someone got me a gorgeous pair of earrings one Christmas, but, alas, I have a metal allergy. The list goes on. These are all very nice things, and I abhor the idea of getting rid of these nice gifts, even though I don’t use them. This explains why my closet is so full.
By comparison, I think that my Korean house was not packed, because Koreans exchange consumable gifts. By consumable, I mean food, liquor, and….toothpaste, soap, and shampoo.
Popular Gift Sets
To Americans, Christmas is a big time for gift exchange, but to Koreans, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day are big times for gifts. And in the picture above, you see gift sets that are popular among Koreans during the two big seasons. The last two sets are not that surprising: high end olive oil and balsamic vinegar make good gifts for Americans as well, I think. But the first one is quite surprising. Shampoo and toothpaste and soap. Yes, they can be gifts to Koreans, and we do like them! Also, gourmet food is another popular item for gifts amongst Koreans. A steak set for meat eaters, and mushrooms for vegetarians!
Gift for vegetarians
Gift for meat lovers
When I opened the closet door of my childhood house, I found a vacuum cleaner, paper bags that Grannie saved “just in case” but we actually used when we sent leftovers with guests at the end of a dinner party, and a supply of toothpaste and gourmet canned food for a year. Recently, I get to think more and more about these “practical” gifts that will never stay in my closet for months and years. As a dedicated housewife, I appreciate olive oil more than a pretty pair of earrings. If I can save money at CVS because someone got us 10 tubes of toothpaste last Christmas, I like it better than having a pretty apron in my closet.
Last Christmas, I asked my husband what he would like to receive for a Christmas gift. My American husband who is so unAmerican said that he would appreciate socks. SOCKS. By now, I am so Americanized and my initial response was “geez…” But why not??? Wasn’t I just complaining that there is no room in the closet? I think that I will get him socks this Christmas. And what would I like to receive for my birthday next year? Copy paper. I need a lot of it.