Koreans believe that if you give shoes as gift to someone, the recipient will wear the shoes and run away from you. Therefore, Koreans do not give shoes as gift to lovers and friends as they do not want to break up with them.
As people use handkerchiefs to wipe their tears when crying, Koreans believe that if you give a handkerchief as gift to someone, sad things will happen to the recipient and make him/her cry. Therefore, you should avoid giving handkerchiefs as gifts to Koreans.
If you want to give a wallet to someone as gift, you should put some money (usually a 10,000 won banknote) into the wallet and then give it to that person as gift. This is to express your wish that the recipient will always have enough money in the wallet for him/her to spend. Therefore, if you just give a wallet with nothing inside as gift, such gift has the meaning that the recipient will not have enough money to spend, which is not a good thing.
If you want to write a card to someone, you should not use the red ink, especially when writing the recipient’s name. It is because Koreans write names of the dead using red ink which is never used to write a living person’s name. As an extension, red ink is not used to write cards as well.
Although red ink is forbidden, there is one type of gift that should be red – underwear for parents! When a Korean receives the first pay check from his/her first job, he/she buys red ‘long johns’ as gifts for his/her parents. Some people may buy other types of underwear such as bras, boxers or panties. Red underwear is considered as a good gift for parents to express filial affection because in the past, Koreans wore long johns to keep warm and believed that red underwear could bring good luck. Such belief continues even nowadays and red underwear is used to bring good luck in other areas as well. For example, you may find plenty of red underwear on sale during the grand opening of a department store. In 2009 when there was flu scare in South Korea, the sales of red underwear shot up as people bought red underwear to to bring them good luck and protect them from catching cold.
In the cold winter, you may also consider buying yourself red underwear to bring good luck and health! 🙂
Reminder: The next blog post will be published on 28 January 2015. Watch this space!
Stephen Redeker, “Behind the myths: Gift-giving myths“, Gwangju News, 2013-03-05
이해영, 김은영, 신경선, 주은경, 이정란, 이현의, 《생활 속 한국 문화77》, 서울: 랭기지플러스<한글파크>, 2011, 78-79쪽
June Han, “Red underwear back in vogue amid flu fears“, The Korea Times, 2009-11-08
2 thoughts on “Korean gift-giving customs – Points to note about shoes, handkerchief, wallet and red colour”
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My mother was Korean, born and raised in Hawaii. Though she was fiercely proud to be American, every now and then she would voice or display little superstitions, or puzzling (to us children).
This woman passed away with boxes of shoes (many unworn), filling 2 closets from floor to ceiling.
Naturally, my 2 sisters and I couldn’t squeeze our feet into her tiny shoes. All her shoes and clothing were donated to a homeless shelter.
The thing was, when she would take us shoe shopping as kids, she always refused to buy us the red shoes we desperately wanted. We’ve never been able to discover why. We always figured it was a Korean thing of some sort or other.