A Merry-Go-Round of Gifts: Gift Exchange in a Korean American Neighborhood

Jenny Sophia Yi


The doorbell to my house rang and my two younger brothers ran to the door yelling, “누구세요?” [“Who is it?”]. 

I pushed them out of the way and ripped open the door. My neighbor and school friend Katie, who lives two houses down, was smiling at me with her sparkling brown eyes. She was holding a plate of colorful homemade rice cakes stuffed with melted brown sugar and sesame seed. 

She said, “Hi again, my mom made too many rice cakes so she made me bring these over too,” giggling because it was the third time I had seen her that day. 

As Katie handed over the plate of food, she yelled bye to my family inside before my mom came rushing out from the kitchen holding a bag of a dozen oranges. “Katie, wait!” my mom cried, “These oranges were on sale so I bought some for your mom too.” 

Katie looked at me and jokingly rolled her eyes. She took the bag with both hands and closed the door behind her as she left. I smirked to myself knowing why Katie had made that face. We both knew we would never stop running back and forth daily from our houses to exchange gifts. 

Asians, specifically Koreans, are known for their abundant gift-giving. According to Seong-Yeon Park’s study, “A comparison of Korean and American gift-giving Behaviors,” Koreans have “more gifting occasions, a wider exchange network, and more frequent giving of practical gifts” compared to other countries and cultures. The gifts are shared in efforts to build and strengthen relationships with the circulation of goods. In Asian cultures like mine, you are expected to give something in return for receiving a gift. 

The popular Korean drama, Reply 1988, has a scene where children from a neighborhood are sent by their parents to share food with the other families. After the kids give one dish, they are sent back home with even more food in return. This process keeps repeating and at one point, the children are running around the entire neighborhood continuously receiving and giving food to each household. Although the children are exhausted by the circulation of goods, in the last scene we see one of the families who started with only one dish on their dinner table ended up with dozens. This scene not only portrays how the food exchanges fill up the neighborhood’s tables but shows that the network within the community is maintained and strengthened through the gift-giving process. Like this drama, gift-giving strengthens bonds in my neighborhood as well.

Through gift-giving my family has forged ties with our neighbors, because it keeps us in constant contact with each other. There are a lot of Korean families living around us so we are able to practice our cultures and traditions together. About two or three times a week, my mom tells me to go give something to one of our neighbors. I get to see my neighborhood friends very frequently because of this and most of our bonding comes from these interactions. During Korean holidays such as Seollal and Chuseok, our families are constantly exchanging a variety of jeon, fish and vegetables coated in egg batter and fried. 

These exchanges help me keep up with my neighborhood school friends through face-to-face conversations, instead of impersonal text messages. We can have deeper discussions because I can see their facial expressions along with our conversations. I feel more connected to them, not just through our words, but through our physical articulations as well. I would have never gotten this close with my neighborhood friends without the constant exchanges. 

Through gift-giving my family has forged ties with our neighbors, because it keeps us in constant contact with each other. There are a lot of Korean families living around us so we are able to practice our cultures and traditions together. About two or three times a week, my mom tells me to go give something to one of our neighbors. I get to see my neighborhood friends very frequently because of this and most of our bonding comes from these interactions. During Korean holidays such as Seollal and Chuseok, our families are constantly exchanging a variety of jeon, fish and vegetables coated in egg batter and fried. 

These exchanges help me keep up with my neighborhood school friends through face-to-face conversations, instead of impersonal text messages. We can have deeper discussions because I can see their facial expressions along with our conversations. I feel more connected to them, not just through our words, but through our physical articulations as well. I would have never gotten this close with my neighborhood friends without the constant exchanges. 

Gift-giving has strengthened bonds in my neighborhood because it is a way we express our care for each other. A couple of years back before the pandemic hit, my mom had to visit my grandmother in Korea who had recently been hospitalized. My father, my younger brothers, and I had to fend for ourselves for two months. It was the first time we had to do household chores without our stay-at-home mom. My father is a firefighter and he works 24-hour shifts so as the oldest child, it was up to me to prepare meals for myself and my brothers. However, my neighbors heard that my mom was away and they brought over meals almost every night. They gifted us overflowing plates of Korean BBQ and red hot spicy soup filled with kimchi and tofu. I was thankful because I was worried about how I was going to prepare meals, do my homework, and make sure my brothers were doing theirs all at the same time. It was during these few months I realized how much my neighbors cared for us. They  went out of their way to prepare additional meals every evening even though they were busy taking care of their own families. These food gifts were something that was appreciated in our times of need. The continuous thoughts and care shown behind the gift-giving is what made my neighborhood feel like one giant family. 

When COVID started, my whole family went into lockdown and we did not leave the house. Since my dad is a first responder, he was quarantined downstairs and I was unable to see or talk to him. I was incredibly lonely being away from my friends and my father, and I became despondent. However, the continuous gift-giving helped maintain our relationships with our neighbors. Since we could not have close interactions like we did before, our neighborhood thought of a new way to exchange our goods. We live in a townhouse complex so our decks are connected to each other. Whenever we want to share something, we leave it on the connecting deck frame so that the receiving end can take it without any physical contact. The first time we exchanged our goods in this manner was when I baked sweet, twisted Korean doughnuts called kkwabegi as a way to make use of the long hours during quarantine. I remember telling my neighbor friend that she had to stand outside on the decks with me until she finished the entire doughnut as an excuse to talk to her more. Instead of being stuck inside all day, I could at least have a short conversation with my friend while exchanging food. Even though these interactions are short and very different from the ones we had in the past, it has been helpful for my mental health. Just being able to have an in-person conversation with my peers make me feel heard and seeing their eyes make me feel validated. I really appreciate my neighbors because as I navigate through this challenging moment in my life, I know they are there for me.

Despite our current situation, my relationship with my neighbors has gotten stronger. I feel more connected to them – they are close physically, and  we are able to reach out to one another at anytime. Our frequent gift exchanges mean so much more to my neighbors than just the physical gift. It is about the constant contact and care behind the exchanges that strengthen our relationships despite the pandemic. I do not know when this pandemic will end and where it will take us, but one thing I do not have to worry about is rebuilding my relationships with my neighbors because we are already maintaining one. No matter what problems we face in the future, we will always find ways to exchange our gifts and our affection for one another.

Jenny Sophia Yi

Washington, D.C.

Jenny Yi attends Centreville High School in Fairfax County, Virginia. In her free time, she enjoys spending quality time with her family and friends. She dreams of living in South Korea one day.