Opinion | On gift-giving at Stanford

Opinion by Keoni Rodriguez
May 20, 2021, 7:30 p.m.

A little over four years ago, I embarked on several expeditions to gather a bit of knowledge about where I would go to college. Like any good intrepid explorer, I dutifully gathered all the implements I would need to weather these college visits: sleeping bag, water bottle, change of clothes, toiletries, an umbrella. In any case, I had overpacked, but my mom nonetheless reminded me before each visit that I could not neglect to carry along with me the gifts she had picked out for my room hosts. 

Yes, you read that correctly. My mom had shoved various goodies from Trader Joe’s into my carry-on for delivery to the unknown students hosting me at the colleges I was visiting. Upon presenting each of these offerings to my room hosts, they expressed surprise, signaling to me that this was, in fact, a strange occurrence. I thought it much stranger that they expected to not have received something for fulfilling a need so crucial to my visits. 

The ritual of my mother assigning me gift-giving missions before leaving the door was not constrained to college visits. I had a long history of presenting gifts to each of my teachers at the end of the year, no matter how many there were. These gifts were nothing lavish. What was far more important was that they knew that I was grateful. 

Indeed, my mother did not spontaneously originate this ritual. She had been raised to do the same thing by her mother, in a setting where this was far more commonplace. She had grown up in Hawai’i, where gifts at the end of the school year abound. In Hawai’i, the practice of gift-giving for many different occasions is rooted in the culture of many of the ethnic groups that make up the islands’ population. Sometimes, this gift-giving goes by the name of the Japanese “omiyage” or, more recently, the Hawaiian “makana.” Of course, gift-giving is not peculiar to Hawai’i and there are myriad other cultural backgrounds in which coming to gatherings armed with a gift is proper etiquette and the protocol around thank you cards is another indication of the primacy of gift-giving. Nonetheless, I will never forget the abject surprise on my room hosts’ faces and their sheepish apprehension towards accepting them. I wondered if, in the new cultural context of college I was about to enter, it would be appropriate to carry on this tradition. 

What I have found is, resoundingly, yes. Despite some inquiries about certain gifts I have brought back from winter break, I have encountered many reminders that the things we give are merely vehicles for communicating deep appreciation for those we care about. People I have met at Stanford give quite freely in ways that remind me how wonderful it can be to share in the collective ritual of giving and receiving, no matter what and why.

My freshman year, I found myself in the emergency room for an affliction in which I had to sleep for a night in the hospital. One of my dormmates and an RA were gracious enough to accompany me through the night, despite it being finals week. After my recovery, I knew I had to return the favor and I cooked spam musubi for both of them, which I felt couldn’t possibly repay them for their sacrifice, which we all ate together. 

In another instance, a co-leader for Hui O Nā Moku, the Pacific Islander group at Stanford, and I were struggling to locate a gift for an important guest speaker, Jamaica Osorio. We had already arranged for a sizable honorarium, but knew that we could not just leave it at that. We understood the honorarium to be simply a part of the Stanford protocol for speakers, but there was more to our cultural expectations. In the end, we gifted her with a shirt emblazoned with the group logo and sea salt, a sacred medicine for Hawaiians. We have since been able to welcome Jamaica back to Stanford a few times since then, always grateful for her appearances. 

In 2018, Hui also co-hosted the Schneider Lecture along with Students for a Sustainable Stanford, in which Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson was to introduce himself to the Native community at Stanford before the lecture. The day before his arrival, you could find several of the Native students carefully crafting head lei to bestow him and the other guests in ceremony. The day of his appearance at the Native American Cultural Center, we laid out food and drinks and rehearsed the ceremony to welcome him, featuring a traditional Hawaiian chant of welcoming and fastening the lei onto him and his fellow navigators. 

My last story occurred in my junior year, during my tenure as a resident assistant in East FloMo. We had all returned from winter break and it was a gift in and of itself to be able to see my wonderful residents and co-staff again after a restful break. I had been sitting in the lounge when one of my residents, who was from Hawai’i, approached me with a grin and presented me with an array of classic Hawai’i snacks like li hing and mochi crunch. I had not been able to make my usual family trip to Hawai’i for Christmas, so it felt like a manifestation of home when I needed it most. 

These stories exemplify only some of the ways I have been lucky enough to continue giving and receiving in the ways that feel like home. My mother still reminds me to bring an offering of food when going to a friend’s house and I never forget to bring back gifts whenever I travel, but my main point in sharing these stories goes beyond a simple explanation of cultural sharing. 

There is something special that I feel permeates the logic of gift-giving represented in my cultural background, something that gives freely in ways that defy the necessity for transaction. The opportunity to render a part of your own thoughtfulness is a blessing. At Stanford, I have received many things, both tangible and not, and I hope to carry those pieces of others that I have gained with pride, knowing that they have done so because they want to build the bonds between us, not to fulfill some monetary duty. 

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Keoni Rodriguez is a senior studying history from San Diego, CA. They are working with The Daily for the first time as a columnist, writing about history, activism and culture.

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