What gifts to buy in a global culture?

I’ve been looking for gifts for the past few days for my impending visit to India from New York. And I’ve been looking in vain.

Last year I bought some bottles of perfume with people’s names on them –unfortunately not mine but say Calvin Klein’s or Elizabeth Arden’s or even Justin Bieber’s.  Sometimes they were not names but only initials. They appeared everywhere–clothes, shoes, leather handbags–with shiny tags that said CK, MC, AB, CD, EF, GH or something else.

I suppose that in the realm of gift-giving, even if there was some confusion as to who had given the gift, there would be no confusion as to whose idea it was. Calvin Klein’s.

But on my way, at my long layover in Dubai, I realized the folly of carrying these several bottles of unnecessary fluids and leather bags (yet so necessary for the human condition) over long distances.

Dubai airport was a great, wide, beautiful, wonderful mall which happened to also have airplanes. And it was newer and more sparkling than any mall in New Jersey or Florida.

In Calcutta, which took to American style malls a little later than many other Indian cities, I saw that the same perfume bottles that I had bought and lugged through airports from so far occupied central positions in gigantic stores inside brand new local malls. (The prices inside were several times higher than the prices outside the malls for similar things, sometimes even higher than the dollar equivalent for the same thing in the US.)

I should have known because I do see people from India increasingly “liking” these brands on Facebook.

English: South City Mall, Kolkata
South City Mall, Kolkata (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So carrying a lot of things from New York to Calcutta seemed silly.

Yet I have to think of something to buy now.

When two places are so different and yet not so different any more in our globalized world the business of gift giving takes on some complex dimensions which reveals curious things about the two places in different stages of coming together. By places I mean people, but people, in some ways, cannot be separated from places.

While buying gifts, two things come into play–the things available where you live and the personality of the gift giver. The things available are fixed while personalities can be variable.

There are those who buy things that they would like very much as gifts themselves. They pick up 98% dark chocolate if they like dark chocolate because of course, that’s what everyone likes or a green sweater because green is the world’s best colour.

The shopping experience is simple for them.

Then there are those who put themselves in the giftee’s shoes and see what the giftee would like to get.(I see that I’m misspelling this word giftee since it’s being underlined in red but I don’t trust spellcheckers.)  The necessity to put yourself in the giftee’s shoes makes shopping about understanding people as much as things.

And people are more complex than things, especially when they speak the global language of things.

Before my very first visit to Calcutta from the US as a student many years ago, I had gone excitedly to the local plaza in the small town in search of things. A few things that would be affordable and yet would tell my folks back home that they were from this new place that was very different.

horses from bishnupur
horses from bishnupur (Photo credit: dodo_anji)

In India, in those days, if you visited a place, you bought things typical of the place. In my limited view of India (for we didn’t travel that much), for example, if we visited the seaside in Digha, we’d come back with necklaces made of sea shells. If we went to Shantiniketan, we’d get leather goods with typical Shantiniketan patterns or fine cotton with batik print. A pair of clay horses from Bishnupur with erect ears were my constant companion in the living room for many years until their white pattern faded and one of them lost an ear completely.

Batik painting depicting two Indian women
Batik painting depicting two Indian women (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the US though, in the small town I lived in, there was a Wal Mart and a Target accessible by bus. So I went  to one or the other  in the plaza, looking for things. I did find a nice shirt made of fine cotton. The tag said “Made in India.” It had travelled all the way.

What sense would it make helping the shirt on a round trip back to its location of origin?

So I found another. This time, it said “Made in Bangladesh.”

Our neighbour in India.


Finally I bought some Hershey’s Kisses and a few ball point pens that clearly said “Made in USA” and looked new and shiny.

On the way home to India my plane stopped in Seoul where I had a very long layover. In my meanderings through the airport, I was eager to see some things typical of Seoul. But again, other than the fact that most people did not speak English, the things that I saw were roughly the same as what I would see in a mall in the US. People in jeans checking out printed Ralph Lauren handbags.

Back in the US,  now that I don’t live in a small town anymore, I decided to visit a different kind of store. These, I knew, are frequented by the other Americans, the ones who speak a more informed language of things. In these stores, the people have understood that the popular American brands are suspect.

So items are several times more highly priced than those at the local malls in America (that are now fixtures in India). Both the people and things in these stores are different–not your regular CK or DK or AB or CD.

Once inside, I was in for a unique experience.

These stores were indeed completely different from a typical American mall or a big box store.

From the inside, they looked like an Indian local marketplace of the most regular kind! Like my local bazaar in the street corner.

Bath salts in open gunny sacks populated the beauty section, the floor was rough and unpolished, jute bags and stainless steel lunch boxes occupied the shelves. The pricier the handbags, the soaps, the shampoos, the mugs, the shabbier they looked. They were several times the price in regular stores but they had irregular shapes and coarse packaging. I even spotted a super expensive jute bag (of the kind very cheap in India with two jute handles people use to buy vegetables from the market) with a picture of Lord Shiva (the kind of picture you’d see in the cheapest variety of colourful wall calendars hanging on sweet shop walls at Sealdah maybe but never on a bag) in a pride of place in this expensive store.


What was I to do? Items that look like this are available 24/7 at any local shop in my lane in Calcutta. They did not remotely seem to have the “foreign” polish that would set them apart. If I got these as gifts, people would surely assume I was too cheap to go to the mall.

Ergo: I think I’ll only buy lots of chocolate chip cookies. No one can have too many of them and no one really cares where they’re made or what shape they’re in.

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39 thoughts on “What gifts to buy in a global culture?”

  1. Great Post. I would still love the chocolate chip cookies though! Also, I agree that products from all over are available everywhere even in Online Stores. Well, food will be a great idea these days. 🙂


  2. Actually, this post makes me feel kinda sad. One would think with globalization there would be more uniqueness available but instead becoming all so all bland. With the proliferation with ‘big box’ stores, it feels like an eternal sameness . Uniquely home made gifts are appreciated. I am all for bringing food..like those chocolate chip cookies…that I made myself. Local artists work well, as Klink noted already.


  3. Great post! I empathize completely with you! Going to Seoul, it was sooo hard to pick out gifts for my friend’s parents who were hosting me. “Bring something from America” is terrible advice when the global market sees the same brands all over the place–as you so eloquently and hilariously explained above.

    The next time you intend to give gifts, perhaps think about making a piece of art, or even using your writing? A beautiful piece of prose might go a long way to show that you care–and you’re only spending your heart’s currency of love, which lets your wallet stay a tad heavier 😉


  4. Great post! We were on vacation in Hawaii and I took my daughter to buy souvenirs at the farmers market, and everything had been made in China. Same thing happened in Mexico. It’s like everything is becoming a mass-produced replica of things that used to be local and unique. It’s frustrating.


  5. I know exactly what you mean… shops and brands are all international these days… I noticed that the gift shops here carry much the same stuff as gift shops in UK, and as for Trade Aid and the like – yes, for you it would be like taking coals to Newcastle to buy their lovely hand-made stuff from India !!! ..
    So yes, I too buy local foodstuffs -New Zealand manukau honey and the like…


  6. Yes, it was easy in the days before economic liberalization, when people in India would be thrilled with a gift of Ziploc bags. Now, you’re right, almost anything you can get here in the U.S. is available—and cheaper—there. Something handmade and personal, like letterpress-printed stationery or a framed photograph of our family, or else a local product expensive or unavailable, like maple syrup or chocolate-covered cranberries. U.S. cake mixes–chocolate cake and blueberry muffin. Or calendars with snowy New England scenes. Cheese and good chocolate used to be hard to get—Amul cheese in a tin just didn’t cut it–and that may still be the case with cheese, especially exotic varieties. If traveling in the summer I used to carry it in a soft cooler with an ice-pack in it, so that it wouldn’t be completely runny by the time I got back from the airport.


  7. Love this post. I’d say something representative of the NY area, a little taxi, t-shirt, something along those lines. But I think you’re already onto something, I’ve been asked by friends outside of the US to send junk food they can’t get where they are. I guess nothing says USA like a bag of Cheetos 😉


  8. What an interesting point of view from someone who travels to another who doesn’t. I have a friend from the U.S. who has traveled to various states. Although he doesn’t use these items, he has gathered a collection of shot glasses with the logos of each state, such as a crab with the name Maryland etched on the glass. Same item, different representation of each locale he visited. I consider these to be cheap purchases, the kind that is available to any tourist willing to part with his or her money, and yet these are one of the few gifts left that actually remind a person of that particular area. So hopefully, despite the increasing globalization, there will always be someone out there creating a type of souvenir that incorporates some pride in its original location.


  9. your post is funny and at the same time it shows that you care. I had the same problem of what to give and finally found key chains with my country’s symbols which i think were made in my country. Your post have reminded me that I need to think of another gift since I can’t possibly give the same thing again. Anyway, I would accept cookies anytime, anywhere…nice post. 🙂


  10. Very cute observation. I Know the feeling completely! I don’t travel much but when I do, I “agonize” over what “souvenirs” to buy to bring – I wonder if that word is even used anymore because as you say nothing is unique or memorable for a particular place anymore. Bring a picture post-card? A touristy (no red line. Wow) t-shirt? And write a funny message on it? Good luck! I’m sure whatever you bring your family/friends will be appreciated!


  11. I understand what you are saying – sometimes when we travel we get the feeling that we could be anywhere cause the stores are all the same. We try to get off the beaten path and buy something local – but that’s hard, too – just like you say. What does local mean these days, anyway? On our most recent trip I bought a necklace from a girl who made it at a local Day of the Dead Celebration in a graveyard and we bought a wind sculpture from a guy on the beach in Santa Barbara who makes them – oh ya, and a statue of St. Francis from a local guy in San Luis Obispo – but those purchases really took some looking around.


  12. Yup! We had that problem when we went last year in March. My wife happens to be the kind who likes to put her self in the giftee’s shoes and worries endlessly. We scaled back the people we were going to gift to considerably. The problem was a little easier for us because the bulk of the people were old (I mean old !) people, thus unlikely to be mall-oriented or brand conscious.

    But since everything’s made in China (we were up north in a small Canadian village and wanted to buy some mementos of the local arts – all the souvenirs were stamped “Made in China or Thailand”), it does lessen the impact.



  13. Best bet always is local produce or specialty goods from the region. I show up with local maple syrup and my hosts make pancakes for breakfast. See how that works?


    1. Several times I’ve known Europeans to request maple syrup as the perfect thing to take to Europe from America.

      What about pralines from New Orleans? Old Bay spices (or “crab flavor” Utz potato chips) if you’re from Maryland? What would you bring from New York? (H&H bagels are probably too perishable.)

      Like several others said, though–BW’s idea of chocolate chip cookies would probably make lots of people happy.


  14. I try to buy Australian goods in Australia but they’re usually made in China!

    I’ll get the chocolate chip cookies next time (and hopefully there’ll be some left by the time I reach my destination) 😉


  15. I think that it’s still possible to find gifts that are completely unique to your home area. For example, in NYC you can bring over something from the Bronx Zoo, or a print from MOMA. Maybe a salami from Katz’s Deli or a box of kinishes.


  16. I stil thinkl people in India like the foreign brands. These are cheaper here to buy than in India. The only difference is that 10 years back people in India were not so much aware of the foreign brands, which is all together a different story now. You will see the Indian malls flooded with these foreign brands, but affordability might be something you have to take into consideration. Even the unbranded stuffs have a high demand in India.


  17. Very interesting post. If I were receiving a gift from someone who went to Europe (a place I’ve never been) I would want something that clearly came from that place. My mom went to France last year and brought me back a pad a note-paper that could have come from anywhere. I don’t need gifts, but when she gave me that I was a bit disappointed. I wanted something clearly French! 🙂


  18. chocolate chip cookies are great! How about framing some photos of your home area as well? At least it’s personal and local…


  19. Next time, get your gifts earlier and online. There are many online American handmade stores across the U.S. I worked for ten years in a gallery that carried all Native American arts, and western and Native American pieces are extremely popular with folks from other countries. I also buy my gifts from art fairs and markets whenever they occur. That way you can purchase handmade articles from the artist/craftsman—without paying a middleman.


  20. What a great analysis of globalization. As an American who doesn’t get out much, that was very insightful. I never would have thought about trying to get gifts for people based on unique locations. But I must admit, chocolate chip cookies would make a perfect gift for me, any day!!!


  21. When I visited Sri Lanka in 2001 I bought a wooden turtle from a local craftsman. One could actually see these wooden objects being produced and the turtle now sits on a table in my living room. It is possible to purchase unique objects here in the UK (I.E. things which where actually produced here). For example I have several ornamental pots made in Cornwall (UK) by local craftsman.


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