How and when to give gifts in Korea
For foreigners new to South Korea, guidance toward tipping is usually straightforward: Don’t do it. While this is a good general rule, the tipping situation is a bit more complex than that.
There are a few circumstances when it is appropriate or expected to provide either a tip or some form of extra compensation in the form of gifts or treats. Travelers should keep in mind that, like in the U.S., local customs can change and there is no set-in-stone rule on tipping or compensation, just general guidelines. But remember, if you’re at an on-base restaurant, you are expected to tip. You don’t have to tip anywhere in Korea, no matter how many stars your hotel is ranked or how fancy the restaurant where you’re eating is. Service fees and tips are already included in the bill. Especially in restaurants, since 2013, when Korea’s “final payment price marking system” was implemented.
A tip is your choice if you feel you received service beyond what you expected, however it is not required.
Gifts of gratitude
Americans affiliated with the military often have questions regarding providing gifts or tokens of gratitude to Korean people.
The most common examples are usually neighbors, or workers from the Korean moving companies who move household goods to or from the base. In these situations, it is acceptable to provide some sort of gift or treat.
In Korea, it is common to offer light refreshments such as sports drinks, fruit, and bread to movers who move household goods to or from the base. The food expenses of the workers are generally included in the total delivery fee – but this varies by company.
If you would like to offer a monetary tip, hand them envelopes you can buy at any convenience store with a small sum of money for their lunch to the company’s representatives. If you use the delivery contractor to the U.S. government, you are not expected to tip.
In the case of trying to give a gift to someone like a Korean neighbor, good ideas include any American snack including chips, nuts or chocolates. However, the ideal gift to give your new neighbors is Korean rice cakes.
Keep your gifts simple and thoughtful and they will be well received no matter what you decide on.
In Korea, toilet paper and detergent are lucky gifts
One of the advantages of living in a foreign country is the fact that you get to experience a totally different culture than what you’re used to. If you are invited to a housewarming party in the states, what gift would you bring? You might bring food, snacks or a bottle of wine. But, in Korea, a roll of toilet paper and laundry detergent are the most common gifts to bring. For Koreans, cleaning supplies bring luck and good fortune to the person who just moved into a new home.
Among both toilet paper and laundry detergent, the roll of paper is the most common. Just as easily as the paper unravels from the roll, so is the gift-giver’s desire for the recipient’s continued success and good health. The bubbles from the detergent symbolize prosperity, wealth and stability for the recipient.
Other customs according to local folklore, say taking the remaining embers from the previous house’s fireplace to a new house will also continue the prosperity.
In addition, Koreans used to hold a purification ritual to drive away bad luck and bad spirits from the new house. Due to this, matches and candles were a popular housewarming gift in the 1960s and ‘70s but were replaced with detergent and toilet paper over time.
Aside from being a lucky gift, perhaps the most important thing is that your friend’s cabinet will be filled with toilet paper and detergent, which could be a relief for them in the months to come. If you are invited to a Korean friend’s house warming party, don’t forget the TP and the soap!