Asian parents are the hardest people to buy gifts for

Christmas: It’s supposed to be a festive time spent with family and friends—filed with gift-giving, Asian hot pot and hustling my younger cousins at poker. I love Christmas, except when it comes to buying gifts for my parents. It happens the exact same way each year. I ask them what they want and receive the same generic response. “We just want you and your sister to be happy and successful.”

In high school I’d say something like “You got it! I’ll get straight A’s and become a doctor just like you always wanted” (I didn’t). Now that I am nearing 30 my replies have become much more succinct. “Happy, done. Success, done.” My sister works for Amazon while I have an exciting career in non-profit (Ok fine, only one of us is happy and successful). “What else do you two want?”

My parents have accumulated years of gifts from my sister and me—ranging from UW sweaters to a restored wedding photo for their 30th anniversary—which are currently just collecting dust in some closet. We feel like terrible children who don’t know what the heck to get our parents. This year I wasn’t planning on getting them anything…until a golden opportunity presented itself.

But before I get too far ahead of myself, allow me to take a step back and explain the curse of Asian thrift, which my parents suffer from.


As refugees starting over in America, nothing was ever easy. My parents had to scrap by on very little, learn a new language and culture, and find out how to provide for each of their families. Money was tight so my parents made a habit of saving money and extreme couponing. This habit never went away, even though they now have more than they ever dreamed of, like Youtube. This is Asian thrift. When applied to gift-giving, Asian thrift can turn generosity into “Mom can find it cheaper at Target.” It’s both humbling and frustrating.


This year my parents decided to spend Christmas in California with my dad’s family while I stayed in behind Washington (another story for another time). Naturally, I assumed they would fly down like normal people. Nope. It turns out they decided to drive 13 hours to San Jose, which I found out about on Christmas Eve. I called my sister in London to see if she would go 25/75 with me on airplane tickets (big tech company, remember?). “How about halfsies?” she replied. Next, I called my parents to give them the great news!

“But we planned on driving,” they said. Their plan was to leave at 4:00 am on Christmas Day in order to get to San Jose by 5:00 pm. It was absolutely ridiculous. “Cheaper than flying.”

“Look mom, the truth is you two are old and driving 13 hours, at your age, doesn’t seem like the greatest, or safest, idea,” I explained to them. My mom doesn’t even like driving to Seattle by way of I-5, how could she possibly make it all the way down to California?

“If you’re worried about us, you can come with mom and dad. Family trip!” my mom said.

Hell no” I immediately replied. “It’s just one Christmas, not your death bed. Don’t get crazy.”

I eventually resorted to lying to my parents in order to force the gift upon them, which is completely within my realm of ethics and morality, and told them that my sister had already bought the tickets (much more believable than me buying them). “That’s your problem,” was my dad’s reply. “I’m driving.”

“Ugh, fine.” I eventually backed down. “I’ll just call you every few hours to make sure you‘re ok. Merry Christmas.”

You see what I have to deal with every year? Asian thrift: savings over conveniences. I am absolutely convinced that my parents would drive to London to visit my sister were it possible. I’m considering giving up on ever buying my parents gifts again and spending the money on my own happiness and success instead (a pint of beer and two tickets to Catching Fire. Ok fine, just one). It is what my mom always wanted after all.

Do any of you ever have this problem? What do you suggest as good gifts for parents? My mom’s birthday is just around the corner!


5 thoughts on “Asian parents are the hardest people to buy gifts for”

  1. I buy tickets to an event and take my Asian mom. She loves spending time with all of her adult kids (especially since my dad has long passed away. She feels loved and spoiled with a day or night out. This is the only thing that doesn’t end up sitting in storage or re-gifted and results in a huge smile!!


  2. My mum returns every gift she gets or gives it to someone else to seem like a good guest. The only exception is that one year when inspiration struck and I got her a year-by-year photo frame to put my baby brother’s school photos into.


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