Nomological Net

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faults in the clouds of delusion

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Wedding checks

Like I said, a few days ago I got invited to a wedding. It was A, a French colleague who has his office down the hall, marrying a local Hong Kong woman. He stopped by to give me my invitation and in the heat of the moment ~ communicating my sympathies ~ I omitted to gauge who else from my department he was inviting.

A few days later, I was having lunch with K, a friend from my department. This guy had not only joined the school the same time as A, but they'd also gone to the same grad school and had been friends there. So the talk turned to the wedding and, inevitably, to the question of what to gift. K, not being from Hong Kong, was as unsure as I was. He though that the safe option given that this was a Cantonese wedding (in a sense) was to gift some cash in a "red pocket" (an auspicious red envelope). As he said that, he wondered what an appropriate amount would be. His metric was -- how much would be enough to cover the cost of one head at the hotel where we'd been invited for the banquet?

I recoiled from that calculation. For me, cash is anyway the lowest form of gift. It signals, "Look, I don't care enough to find something appropriate for you, so run along and buy yourself a trinket." And while I know this is technically irrational, it has solid foundations in theory as well as popular appeal. One of the best-received sessions I teach every year is the one on gift-giving, which talks about the various stages of the gift-giving process. First there's the gestation stage, where the giver plans ahead, thinking about their motivations for giving the gift, how much time and effort they should put into it, the nature of the appropriate gift, the "right" value. Then comes the presentation stage, which isn't just about walking up the recipient and tossing the parcel in their faces, but about the ceremony that accompanies the giving, the attention to the recipient, the unwrapping, the surprise, the often too-obvious demonstrations of joy and thankfulness. And it doesn't end there, since there's the reciprocity stage, where the person who was first the recipient now has to become the giver, and the value and nature of the gift and the specialness of the presentation get factored into the complex calculus of the relationship.

So, given all this theoretical knowledge, I can also appreciate how wedding gifts may be different. The process tends to be a lot more formalized, for one. At my wedding, we'd had two receptions, in two cities. My parents had printed an invitation card that said clearly at the bottom, "No gifts please." (Or words to that effect -- it's been a long time.) Despite that explicit injunction, every other person who attended brought a gift-wrapped parcel. The venue had placed a table behind us, and that table was soon overloaded with layers of boxes. Funny was the gentleman, some professional acquaintance of my father's, who walked in empty-handed to congratulate us, excused himself, disappeared for half an hour, and returned with a gift of his own. Funnier was the fact that when we unwrapped the parcels the next day, we found we had something like eight or ten "lemon sets". I'd never heard of these before but as we learned, they were in fashion then. My parents used them as gifts at weddings they went to over the course of the next few years -- presumably as antiques. Funniest was one of the gifts we hadn't opened -- a large flat square box, at least eighteen inches across, with a photograph of a salver on the cover. My in-laws assumed it was silver and decided it needed to be stored away safely. Much much later, a bout of house-cleaning brought that box to light again and the decision was made to open it.

It yielded a cheap aluminium tray loaded with two kilograms of heartily-rotten mithai.

Anyway, so that's one thing about the wedding gift that's different from the normal gift. It's formalized, so a lot of that stuff about relationship bonding and reciprocity doesn't quite hold in the same way. Or else I'd have been waiting for the silver-platter-giver's next invitation. And it leads to all kinds of weird herding behavior -- like the lemon sets we got at that reception, or the six wall-clocks from the other reception. A second way in which wedding gifts are different is that they tend to over-emphasize reciprocity at the cost of bonding. I'm talking about cash. K's idea of gifting an amount commensurate with the per-capita cost of the hotel booking revolted me at first, but then I thought back to what I myself had done at my second reception. The six timely souls who'd gifted us wall-clocks had been in a minority. Here, the culture being different, we'd received *stacks* of envelopes. This was probably the first time I was receiving cash like this (incorruptible me). The whole process had been stylized -- me and TPB on the dais, cascades of relatives rolling up from the left, mumbles of congchulesun, congchulesun, frantic whispers of dive? yes dive! ok dive!, envelope stuffed into my hand, always at waist-level, photographer shouts photo! sighs of relief as orderly line is formed, I pass the envelope behind TPB's back into the outstretched hand of her cousin, who is keeping stock. Round after round after round. And in the evening, after it was all over, I and my new family sat down to keep score. Envelopes were opened. Counts were made. Comments passed. Totals listed and filed away for future reference. I felt like I was looking in at a parallel universe.

A further culture shock, and an even more different look into the world of wedding gifts, came after we moved to the US. Two good friends from grad school were getting married. They sent us the link to their registry. I asked around, discreetly, to convince myself this wasn't a joke. People telling other people not only what they want, but where to get it and how much to pay? Although I didn't know it then, this basically kills of most of the first two stages of the gift-giving process. Now it's not about the giver any more, or about their relationship with the recipient, it's all about convenience. An interesting book I'm reading right now asks quite pertinently -- why don't we just do away with all the reception and registry money sinks and instead get the well-wishers to contribute to a down payment on a house for the couple instead? Further, not only does a wedding registry kill off the romance and force you quantify your love for the couple in a metric that is stark naked to everyone concerned, it also discriminates against the slow-movers! When three of us friends got round to looking at the registry concerned, we found that most everything that had been within reach of our grad student budgets was now gone. Obviously grad students tend to have many friends on grad student budgets. We contemplated getting them one wine glass or pillow cover each (these things get that expensive?!). Ultimately, we pooled our meagre resources and ended up giving a gift that none of us remember.

But maybe that's the way they like it.

But not me.

I can think back to weddings I have attended, and I can remember the gifts I gave and how they were received, and I can look around my house and I can remember who gave us what and how. Ultimately, where my closest friends are concerned, I don't think I'd really have cared whether they gave us any presents or not. Indeed, my wedding invitation said no gifts. But that wasn't a strong enough signal for society, I guess.

I told K that it might be a good idea if he and I pooled our cash contributions and got A a nice gift instead. He readily agreed, then suggested we ask around our department to see who else was invited. I knew B had been, so I asked him and he said yes at one. K found C and she agreed as well. Then we learned D&A were also invited though they may not go, then CA, then AR. The list kept expanding and I kept adding cc's on to the group email that I was trying to co-ordinate. Then at some point one of the new entrants stopped by my office and said -- you know what, I just talked to a good friend who's local, and she said cash in a red pocket would be just fine, so I think I'll go that way.

And with that, the whole gift co-ordination exercise lost all its steam in one get-go.

We all ended up carrying red pockets.

There was a desk outside the reception where they were checking off people's names as they arrived and informing them which table they were seated at.

We all gave our red pockets to the girls at the desk.

Happy marriage, A.

21 Comments:

Blogger Abi said...

In many Tamil weddings, cash -- yes, cold, hard cash! -- is handed over to two separate entities (one each for the bride and the groom) who note down the name of the gift-giver and the gift amount.

Such ritualized 'gifts' (and the mercenary attitude they represent) are probably a reflection of the sheer number of people that get invited to desi weddings. They don't convey any meaning other than to say "yes, I was at your wedding!"

In Hong Kong, is it common to invite a lot of people -- more than 500? 1000? That may explain the evolution of red pockets, whose civilized simplicity is eminently likable!

5/06/2007 1:17 PM  
Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Dude, if I were to accept gifts, I'd actually prefer cash to the 385 versions of the same thing. There's a limit to the amount of gift recycling possible. (Even books get duplicated. And I didn't even LIKE 'Shantaram')

J.A.P.

5/06/2007 2:06 PM  
Blogger Veena said...

Reminds me of the gifts lying in my mom's bedroom loft awaiting its next owner. Though my mom's idea of "discount sale" has been working out pretty well - she told everyone in the neighborhood that whenever they have a wedding to attend, they can pick anything from her loft and pay her what they think is a fair price. So we are down to 323 now. Agree with JAP. If you have to, give me cash anyday.

As Abi says, in Tamland, there is this thing called "moyi" where they write down names and amounts each side receives from the guests. It def happens in villages, and my accountant uncle always gets to do the writing in any wedding he attends! And when the time comes, they look through the books and find out that they received "201 rupees along with 3 pounds of rice" from the guest, so they will now return 201 rupees and 4 pounds of rice(if its a good year). Pretty fascinating practice.

5/06/2007 8:52 PM  
Blogger Revealed said...

I remember reading about two tribes who would get so involved with the whole gift-giving process (as a proof of how well-off the tribe was) that the chiefs would basically end up bankrupting themselves. The theory behind gifting is extremely interesting, isn't it? And it translates upwards to almost every altruistic action you can think of.

Completely off topic, I loved the sexual economics link you left over at falstaff's. Totally fascinating :)

5/07/2007 8:36 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

abi:
oh yes, it's about the number of people. at my in-laws' reception the guest list was drawn up after consulting the "community directory" -- which claims to carry a listing of all descendants of people who came from a particular set of villages! the noting-down happened, as i described, after the event. i believe the same happened at the hk do as well. the one we went to had only about a couple of hundred people, but i'm not sure whether that's below average or not.

red pockets happen at chinese new year as well, where people higher in the social hierarchy bestow them on the ones below.

uncle jap:
i'd venture that's because you're now viewing wedding receptions with an eye to the future :-D

veena:
good to see the expert beighing in! like i said to abi, i think this kind of thing happens in various forms in several places. still puts me off, though. why invite so many people? i've heard people say "we live in a society, you know". when i hear that i think thank heavens raja ram mohan roy wasn't built the same way.

i like your mother's system. beats my mother's -- which involves fishing a lemon set out once every few months, and yelling at me about the fact that there are so many left during wedding-fallow periods.

revealed:
absolutely! i wish i had the time to concentrate more on this wonderful area -- i've only dabbled on the outskirts so far. i guess that's what tenure's for :-D

glad you liked the link. one of the authors is a friend -- i'll pass on the word :-)

but are you going to go about putting it into practice now?

5/07/2007 8:45 AM  
Anonymous Ph said...

Ok, I want to know. What do you teach?

5/07/2007 10:15 AM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

Cash please. Anyday....at least I won't be stuck with hideous gifts I don't want. :D

And you *always* have more than one gift of the same kind. At my cousins wedding I had to make a list of who gave what - very painful. Yes, thats tea set #25.

I think registry is actually a good idea. At least people know what you want. Saves everyone trouble no?

And chineese new year! Ang paos! And pinapple tarts! ok shall stop with silliness.

5/07/2007 3:15 PM  
Blogger Rahul said...

We had a smallish reception and specified "no presents please", and I think 80% of the invitees obeyed.

When it's someone I know well, I prefer to give a real gift, but otherwise I do the cash thing (perhaps with an accompanying bouquet). When I was young I preferred receiving cash, so that I could spend it on what I want. Only later did I see that a well-chosen-gift is often not what I'd have got for myself, but expands my interests. Such a gift ideally comes from someone who knows me well and knows what's missing (not "what Evelyn Waugh is missing in my collection", but "what entire category that I would enjoy is missing in my experience"). That's what I aim for in giving too -- if I can't, I don't try.

Less ideally, I have received Kenny G as a gift, by someone who "knew" I liked jazz; I found it hard to simulate pleasure and gratitude.

5/07/2007 4:37 PM  
Blogger Revealed said...

LOL@ Kenny G :)))))))))))))))))

@tr: Already in practice, no? *lifts an enquiring eyebrow*. And you know the most *interesting* people!

5/07/2007 11:30 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

ph:
consumer behavior.

szerelem:
that's what i meant about registries being for efficiency. ideally one would invite only those people who knew exactly what to give. gifts, as rahul says, that even i wouldn't have known about.

i'd like to highlight that silliness for you starts and ends with mis-spelling pineapple :-D

rahul:
going from wedding gifts to gifts in general, well, if it's someone you don't know so well, then cash is always safer to give. but for me receiving a gift that expands my interests is worth its weight in gold. (giving such a thing isn't a bad feeling either.) my mind goes back to the-artiste-formerly-known-as-cow -- who on my seventeenth birthday gave me my first hendrix tape... and borrowed it three seconds later.

ps. am i to assume you still have a kenny g cd? or did you GIVE IT to someone? kis muh se?! ;-)

revealed:
in practice -- how would *i* know?

and about the other bit -- hey, you know what they say about birds of a feather :-D

5/07/2007 11:54 PM  
Blogger km said...

Gift registry is the pits, but cold hard cash is as good as money, as Yogi Berra may not have said.

A buddy o' mine gifted me a copy of the Kamasutra. My then 2-year old pup decided he didn't like so much debauchery around the house and chewed up *every* single page of the beautiful book.

5/08/2007 1:30 AM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

I share your reluctance about giving money - but mainly because it will show the recipient what a cheap bugger I am.
The preferred strategy is to go to the discount section of a posh store and buy something that looks like it costs a lot more than it actually does.
I believe that the impression is more important than the intention.

5/08/2007 2:21 AM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

@km: The illustrated version? You're sure that some young cousin / nephew didn't rip out the good pages and blame it on the poor mutt?

5/08/2007 2:24 AM  
Blogger km said...

MT: No, the dog's only blamed for noxious gaseous outputs.

5/08/2007 3:08 AM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

@KM: Hahaha - Fido! Get out from under that chair!!

5/08/2007 3:16 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

km, mt:
maybe it was some deeper disagreement with the portrayal of doggy style?

5/08/2007 8:13 AM  
Blogger km said...

TR: LOL!

5/08/2007 8:27 AM  
Blogger Saket Chaudhary said...

I prefer giving envelopes cause I've heard to many married friends crib about the quality of the gift... had some friends make a registry at a gallery and the total amount would help them pick a painting, I liked that idea

5/08/2007 3:59 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

that's a really neat idea.

[people get sick of having random little things they don't need so let's get them a big thing they don't need :-D]

5/08/2007 7:39 PM  
Blogger Chronicus Skepticus said...

And I want to know, what is a 'lemon set'??

5/13/2007 7:20 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

cs:
from observation and inference, we gathered that it's like a teaset for lemonade. there's one large jug, usually tall and squarish in cross-section, and six narrow tall glasses. all made of porcelain.

5/13/2007 11:08 PM  

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