Dec 17, 2018

The souvenir game

In a different post, I wrote about my complaints towards the amount of unnecessary garbage that is generated from the whole system of giving and receiving souvenirs in Japan. 

My dislike of souvenirs is not just from the environmental standpoint. As a foreigner living in Japan, I always feel awkward with souvenirs and the whole system of it. Allow me to explain.

In Japan, it is common that when someone travels, usually to another prefecture for a trip or to visit their hometown, for them to return with a box of local souvenirs, typically edible, to share with the people at work. Some people would get something nice and really popular from the area, and others might simply buy some cheap butter cookies with the name of the place printed on them that tastes no different from any other butter cookie. While the former people may take pride in whatever they choose to bring back and share, those of the latter often do it just because it is an obligation. 

The souvenir game photo

As a foreigner, there are a few things I feel about this whole souvenir game that my Japanese co-workers may not consider.

I was just taking and taking and taking…

Before I got used to living in Japan, I was very much a blind mouse walking and bumping into random things, most often not sure where I was or why I was doing what I was doing. When I opened my desk drawer and I found some snacks, I would eat them every time. 

After a while, I finally asked a co-worker about where the snacks were coming from, and they would simply tell me that they are from a certain person. I would walk over to thank the other colleague, thinking it was just a nice gesture from them, not knowing it was a part of this system that I did not know about. In the end, I just kept enjoying the snacks, never giving anything back because I didn't know about it.

Did they expect nothing…?

So finally, a foreign co-worker explained to us how this whole souvenir game works, and I started bringing things in return when I would travel. However, every time I do that, everyone is always so surprised (pleasantly) by the fact that I brought in some souvenirs. 

They were astonished that I was able to take part in their tradition, so more than the thing I bought and shared, the attention was only on the act of bringing in souvenir. While it is nice that they appreciate my adaption to their tradition, it feels weird that only my souvenir gets so much attention, based on the fact that I am a foreigner.

But my “going home” is quite different from their “going home”

One more thing is about my hometown. While many of my co-workers would bring some local produce or snacks back, it is more difficult for me to be bringing souvenirs back from my hometown. The things I can buy back home are often not individually packaged, which is great except for the fact that makes it more challenging to share. 

What is available back home would also build up to be quite expensive too if I bring one for every person I work with. Not to mention, bringing souvenirs is not as simple as bringing an extra bag onto the shinkansen for me.  Rather, I need to prepare space in my luggage. I am always afraid that they have higher expectations for my souvenirs because they are from outside of Japan, and that kinda stressed me out as well.

At the end of the day, I can do with or without this whole souvenir game. I enjoy receiving them, but it can become quite cumbersome when I have to think about what to give back in return. 

In addition, I don’t feel like it is optional. Sure, I can pretend not to know about the tradition, but I don't want to be one to just take advantage of others. If I can choose, perhaps I would prefer that I don't receive any and that I don't have to return any.