Welcome to Korea: Should I give my principal a gift?

In the few months before Chickpea and I arrived in South Korea for our new teaching gig, one of the things we stressed over was what kind of gift to give to our co-teachers, principal and vice principal. According to blogs and advice of former native English teachers, gift-giving is a large part of Korean culture and new teachers often give several gifts to the important people at their school. And when you consider how much your Korean co-teacher(s) help you acclimate to a new country, a token of thanks seems reasonable, no matter where you’re from.

But Chickpea and I didn’t want to just bring some oranges or beach sand in a glass bottle. We wanted to make an impact! We wanted to bring something so unique, that when our principal went out for drinks with the other principals around Daegu, he could brag with pride and make all the other principals lower their heads in shame.

So before leaving, we bought a few jars of local honey from St. Petersburg (honey is very expensive in Korea we heard), guava jelly, salt water taffy, coconut candies made in Key West and some lotions (name brand cosmetics and bath products are popular in Korea). I wanted to go one step further, so I also bought two small bottles of Maker’s Mark whiskey. From other things I’ve read, whiskey is popular and expensive in Korea, so it makes for a great gift.

We were ready. When we arrived in Daegu, Chickpea and I divided up the presents between our teachers, vice principal and principal, based on hierarchy. This is very important. The principal must receive the best gift, the vice principal gets something a little less extravagant and teachers are at the bottom. Even though your co-teacher will do more for you during your time in Korea, you can’t shake up the hierarchy.

Chickpea had no problem. She bought lots of small stuff and different sizes of honey, so she made nice packages that she could then easily add or subtract by ranking. But I was in a bit more trouble. I was planning a bottle of whiskey and honey for my principal; a large jar of honey for my vice principal and a smaller bear of honey for my co-teachers. But on my first day, I casually asked if the principal liked to drink.

“Oh no,” she said. “His face gets very red. He does not drink very much.”

So, I had to re-think my gifts. I did know my principal liked plants — in fact, plants cover every available space in our school and the principal waters all of them by hand every day — so I went to Homeplus and bought him a big plant. I replaced the whiskey for the plant and I was ready. Or so I thought.

After giving my teachers their gifts, I asked to see the principal. My co-teacher brought me to his office and he waved us in with a big smile. I presented my bag of gifts. He immediately frowned, pushed the bag back towards me and began to berate my co-teacher.

I could tell my co-teacher was trying to explain that I had all the best intentions in the world, but the principal just kept shaking his head and sternly speaking, while moving us out the door.

It ranks as one of the most uncomfortable, awkward moments I’ve had in Korea. Actually, it might top the list.

I later learned that my principal did  not receive gifts from any teachers, because it could be construed as bribery. I respected that decision, but it didn’t help me feel any less weird in his presence. Plus, I still had all those presents, especially that damn plant, taking up space in my apartment. Because I didn’t give my principal anything, I felt weird giving my vice principal gifts, so all that extra space in my luggage was for naught.

On the flip side, Chickpea’s principal loved her gifts and it seems to have helped their relationship. So I guess the gift situation can go either way.

So, should you get your principal and teachers a gift? My advice is this:

Only bring gifts from home if it’s something you could easily re-gift to another Korean (a friend you may meet later, new co-teacher, etc.) or could use yourself. That way, you wouldn’t have wasted any space in your luggage. Then, maybe feel it out before you do the actual gift giving. This is especially true for alcoholic gifts.

One approach is to just buy a cake or pizza (or both!) for the principal, vice principal and co-teachers to show your appreciation. I ended up doing that and it went over very well with all parties. In fact, here’s a photo from that nice, awkward day:

I don’t know why I’m blowing out the candles. Maybe there was miscommunication on who it was for.

Good luck!

4 thoughts on “Welcome to Korea: Should I give my principal a gift?

  1. Ug, that’s terrible! Sigh. Thanks for sharing. I’m trying to figure out what to bring gift-wise when I go to Korea in less than a week and this at least helps me be prepared for possible disappointment and embarrassment regardless of my good intentions!

  2. I’m about to come to Korea as well, and I am stressing over what to give my teacher and Principal. So you think that getting one pizza for all three or each is a good idea?

  3. I would just throw like a “pizza party” and invite all of them. You’ll have to have them order for you probably (unless you know Korean already), but make sure you are there when it arrives to pay. Just get however much you all can eat together. Eating together is really important in Korea. Good luck!

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