Most of us learn about other cultures’ unique customs and traditions through experience, sometimes good, sometimes not so good. Fortunately, my introduction to the custom of gift giving in the Thai culture was not through a cultural gaffe. Understanding, and adapting to, the fact that Thailand is a gift-giving culture has been one of the many charms of traveling there.

The first time I went to Thailand, I had no idea that everyone I met, in both social and business situations, would give me a small gift. In business settings, it was something with the company logo, such as at year end it would be a calendar and diary, sometimes it was a coffee mug, or a desk set. Often it would be more representative of the culture itself, such as a small piece of Benjarong, which is a very traditional Thai style of colorful fine china pieces. But those art pieces would be presented in very elaborate packaging, such as a leather-covered box, with the company logo embossed in gold on the outside.

Over the almost-40 years I have been visiting and/or working in Thailand, I have many such gifts to remind me of those wonderful trips, the great experiences, and the incredible people I have met and with whom I have become acquainted over the years. One of my favorite necklaces is a long rope of colorful stones, some glass from the seashore, likely polished by the waves and sand over the years, some obviously semi-precious gems, and even some turquoise pieces. I’ve had it for many years, and it is perfect for a trip like this one: pack one necklace and wear it with several different outfits. This week I wore it when I met my friend — who had given it to me years ago — for lunch. She remembered it.

Many of the gifts I have received are now conversation starters in our home. The hammered steel elephant head hanging on the wall is one such piece. It is now priceless, not only because it is one of a kind, and to create one now would be cost prohibitive, making it literally priceless, mostly because the friend who gave it to me is no longer living.

At social gatherings, guests are often given a gift as a small remembrance of the occasion. Guests at funerals always receive a small remembrance of the “guest of honor.” At one “family” member’s funeral, we all received a small gift but also a very well done “funeral book,” a history of his life with text, photos, and notes written by friends. I was honored to have been asked to write such a tribute for that book.

At another family funeral, we all received a small vial of refreshing and aromatic Thai herbs in a silver smelling-salts container; it was wrapped in a black nylon mesh bag and tied with small flowers. She was always known to have handy that kind of a container, and also loved flowers of all kinds. I always think of her when I use it.

For the bride and groom, one important part of the wedding planning includes what to prepare as a gift that will be given to every guest. At one of my “family” member’s wedding, the gift was a tiny gold tennis racquet, which could be a charm or a key chain. It was chosen because the bride was a champion tennis player. At my second family wedding, the gift to each guest was a commemorative glass, inscribed with their names and the name of the resort at the sea at which they were married.

When Spouse Roger and I were getting married, I was going to have our wedding rings made in Thailand because of the availability and quality of sapphires and also gold. I had designed them before I left, and my long-time friend offered to take them to her jeweler to have them made. I was there for about three weeks on a business trip, and we thought for sure they would be ready by the time I was leaving. They were not, but “Number Two Thai Son,” the second one who stayed with me in Minnesota while in school, was coming home to Bangkok for Christmas break, and would return before our wedding, which was to be in February. He would bring them.

When he got back, sure enough, he had the rings. We didn’t know before I left Thailand how much the rings would cost, and his parents and I had agreed that I would deposit the amount, when he brought the bill with the rings, into his school bank account. When I asked him how much they had cost, he astounded me by saying they were a wedding gift to the two of us from my Thai adopted family. That is gift-giving!

Now, gift-giving is simply a part of my Thai life; it seems perfectly normal and comfortable. In fact, it seems so customary to me that I have already picked out and purchased the gifts to be given to attendees at my own memorial occasion. I just don’t have a date yet.