Souvenirs to Remember

A look at why we bring back souvenirs for other people when we travel.
Thursday, November 17, 2005

Why do we bring back souvenirs from vacations for people? A few sleepless nights before departing for Japan, I was running through a list of people it would be polite of me to bring back gifts for, and I thought how silly of a notion this is. Given the root of the word, French for “to remember,” it makes no sense to bring back gifts of remembrance from places that other people did not go to, and thus have no memories of. My apartment is filled with artwork, trinkets and tchotchkes from all over the world, but only the ones that I bought for myself carry real memories and thus higher value. Sure, it is cool that I have three iron stirrups from different countries in South America, but having never been to those places, they are merely objects taking up space in an already crammed room.

Then I started reading about Japanese culture and their insistence on offering gifts to friends and coworkers upon return from vacation. They do this to apologize for having left the “group” weakened in their absence. It is a sign of selflessness after having taken a selfish vacation. Surely we, as Americans with no where close to that kind of rigid culture, do not bring back gifts as apologies.

Then it hit me. We bring back gifts for people to let them know that while we were apart, we remembered and were thinking about them. On return, our souvenir offerings say “I remembered you,” and it all makes sense.