Saturday, December 25, 2010


You needn't give me a gift. If December 25 is today, or February 14 is tomorrow, or my birthday is coming up on some day that you shouldn't know because I never tell anyone my birthday is coming up, you really needn't give me a gift because, truthfully, I likely won't be giving you a gift. The act of giving should happen on March 3 or July 22 or November 8 or Saturday or because the sun has risen or because you're very hungry or because that swallow swooped so gracefully. Giving should happen any time, all the time, and not only on assigned days. When I see people panicking on December 1 because posters at the mall remind them they have twenty-four days in which to check off all the names on their list, and they agonise over how much money they don't have to accomplish that task, I think of one word: Hegemony.

A packed mall is torture. A sidewalk crammed with shoppers is not fun. There is little sanctity in scrambling like a rat with twelve bags strung across the crook of your arm, shoving your Master Card back into your wallet for the tenth time this hour, clutching a list of To Whomevers merely because The Day is in three days. There is much benevolence in making a sock doll for your toddler cousin, making dumplings for your sweetheart, taking your grandfather to Seattle for his first time. Making a gift and giving the gift of experience require time and involvement. There is more consideration. You give not only a thing -- you give yourself.

Spontaneous giving is the antithesis of obligatory giving; we are celebrating a moment when we decide to buy the next round of Guinness. Why? Because we are friends, because we are out, because we enjoy each other's company. Such improvised goodwill can be far more heartfelt than buying your son Call of Duty: Black Ops simply because, well, he wouldn't shut up about it since September. Giving under duress is not an act of goodwill.

When I hear of someone angered by not receiving a birthday gift, or a man scoffing at how the shoes his girlfriend gave him are cheap, another word is exposed: Entitlement. Occasions and assigned days, especially those that get Hallmark's CEO aroused, have made us kowtow to mainstream pressure and expect the generosity of others, whether we deserve it or not. We have become brats.

The act of giving on certain days can be customary, entrenched in tradition, a fundamental aspect of a culture. In my late teens, when my nihilism was developing at the same rapid pace as my politics, I would refuse red envelopes given to me on Chinese New Year and December 25 and my birthday. My feeling was that I didn't do anything in particular to deserve the lucky money, nor should the giver feel obligated to share some of her savings for the sake of custom. My refusal was never successful because I could sense I was becoming insulting. Now, my counter-culture impulses have entered a healthy debate with a respect for established culture, and I accept the lucky money with genuine gratitude. Upholding some cultural values can be worth it, monetarily and otherwise.

I am a hypocrite. I do not expect any gifts from anyone ever, but I will give them on occasion. On occasion, meaning once in a while because I feel randomly inspired, and on occasion, meaning I would be a horrible uncle if I didn't give my nephew and niece a thing for that day in December. As an anti-gifter who gives gifts, my hypocrisy rests in two reasons: I don't want to feel guilty for not giving anything; I don't want my nephew and niece to feel alienated in coming years when they will inevitably have to discuss with their friends on December 26 what they got on December 25. I remember feeling inadequate in the 1980s when my friends' trees were hardly visible behind the cascade of giant wrapped boxes, while the scant packages under my anemic tree hardly required the mystery of wrapping because they were, invariably, year after year, merely Pot of Gold chocolates and dried scallops.

I will continue to indulge in hypocrisy by giving to my nephew and niece because when he unwrapped the cylindrical box to discover Tinker Toys and cheered, I enjoyed creating that moment of happiness (my niece is sixteen months old and likely greeted my gift of a plush panda cub with equal parts happiness and indifference). I understand how the act of giving -- whether mandated by the calendar or not -- can bring fulfillment to the giver. When for my 1996 birthday Sarah gave me what I deemed the greatest object-gift I had ever received -- a name belt buckle -- I grabbed my face with both palms in utter shockgratitude. So did she. I had never experienced a moment of exchange so equally and oppositely explosive; Sarah's approach to giving is Newtonian. She chides me for not celebrating (let alone not announcing) my birthday: "You're robbing us of the chance to celebrate you."

I have given myself a birthday party twice in my life. The most recent occasion was my 28th birthday, which I enjoyed sharing with friends and booze for the novelty of it being my champagne year. Aside from that relatively rare event, I would be happy to acknowledge my birthday privately and quietly year after year. It's not about secrets. It's not about hiding my age. It's about accomplishment. I enjoy being acknowledged/celebrated/smiled at only for something I've done. Otherwise, I'd be happy being invisible. Getting older by one year does not seem to me to be an accomplishment. All I had to do was stay alive, which can certainly be difficult for many -- including me -- but it's a relatively common event. My birthday is not an achievement. It is a default event. I don't feel a need to celebrate it. That being said, I love nothing more than drinking and celebrating the birthdays of others. Remember, I'm a hypocrite. Please continue to invite me.

If I were to hold my own birthday party and invite you, you would come for one of two reasons: You like me; you feel obligated. If you are the latter, I would rather you not come. The same goes for an invitation to a film or show of mine: Don't feel obligated to attend. I would love to have you there, but only if you are genuinely interested. That being said, I will still attend your event because I feel obligated (or because I am genuinely interested). I will absolve you of feeling obligated, but I myself am not able to escape obligation. I have a problem with guilt.

As many of my friends are artists, I am constantly tossing around in a vortex of internal conflict called Commitment. I often feel committed to attend an artist's event because that artist has attended mine. There are other words for this type of Commitment: Community. Support. Support your fellow artists because they support you. However, we all should understand that we can't attend all our fellow artists' events. We should be excused, and giving an excuse shouldn't be necessary. Colleagues regularly say to me, "I'm sorry I missed your show," and I say the same to them. Then I remind them that in these long careers of ours, we will surely have to miss some of each other's events, so let's just make a point to attend the next. I never make a person feel guilty for having missed my event. To guilt one into attending your own event is poor form. With guilt comes obligation. Obligation is synonymous with reluctance. Reluctance is the absence of sincerity. That is the word: Sincerity.

ME: Mom, Dad, I'm heading out now.
MOM: Are you going to your sister's?
ME: After I get some gifts...

It's December 24 and I have yet to get anything for my nephew and niece.

MOM: You don't have to get them anything.
ME: I've gotta get them something. I'm their uncle.
MOM: They don't need anything.
ME: I want to get them something. I'm gonna go to Commercial Drive to get--
DAD: You're supposed to already be at your sister's.
MOM: Now.
ME: I still gotta get some gifts for--
MOM: No you don't. There...
She wags her finger to a plastic bag on the kitchen shelf.

MOM: ...Your dad just picked them up the other day...
DAD: ...They're excercise books for writing Chinese...
MOM: A perfect gift.
DAD: A perfect gift.
MOM: You can give them to your nephew. We're going to give lucky money anyways, so you give him the books--
ME: No.
DAD: You give him the books.
ME: No.
MOM: You don't have to rush out to buy anything now.
DAD: It's two o' clock.
ME: No. I didn't--
MOM: The perfect gift.
ME: You got him the books, I didn't.
DAD: He doesn't have to know that.
MOM: He's five.
ME: But still, they're from you not me.
MOM: What difference does--? If you give them, they're from you.
DAD: You don't like the books?
ME: I love the books, but I didn't get them. If I give them, it's not real-- I didn't--
MOM: The books aren't real?
ME: ...I didn't-- Dad got-- It's not a real gift--
MOM: It's fake? How is it not a real gift?
ME: A real gift from me!
MOM: It's a perfect gift!
My left hand was clutched like talons an inch away from my chest.

ME: Mom, your heart isn't... doesn't work like mine. It's not... real. Real, real... how do you say?...
How do you say "sincere" in Cantonese?

ME: ...You know what I'm saying? Dad, you know what I'm saying! Real.
His brow was scrunched as he ate his noodles, annoyed.

DAD: Okay okay, don't give him the books!
MOM: Stupid!
ME: I'm gonna go get some gifts. See you tonight.

After all that, they still didn't say "sincere" in Cantonese.