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Mon, Apr 12, 2010
The Straits Times
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No luck with women's gifts
by Teo Cheng Wee

I spent the last few weeks trying to look for a gift for a female colleague who was leaving the company.

It seems like an awful lot of time to spend on a present, but I'm always very stressed when shopping for women.

These anxieties probably stemmed from my first attempt at buying a present for a girl when I was in school.

Being young and not terribly bright at the time, I came up with the brilliant idea to buy this friend a year's subscription to Her World.

I mean, she likes Her World, I give her something she likes - ta da!

Cue applause.

Instead, when she heard the news, she gently grabbed my arm and took me to one side. Smiling weakly, she then gave me a look best described as a mix of amusement and pity.

It's the kind of look mothers give their toddlers when they scribble gibberish with a crayon and tell them that it means 'I love you, Mummy'.

'Her World. That's sweet,' she cooed. There was a pause. Then a deep breath.

'But really, don't buy me magazines. Please.'

Since then, every gift for a girl has been an exercise in hair-tearing. Functional stuff - the easiest kind to buy - are out.

Contrast this with men. Men actually like practical gifts. Like PlayStation 3.

If that's too expensive, you can always look at T-shirts. Men can never have enough T-shirts. Or football jerseys.

At the time when I was shopping for this female colleague, a birthday bash was coming up for a male friend.

'What should we get him ah?' I asked another male friend.

'I don't know man. A football jersey?' he suggested.

'How about a T-shirt?' I countered.

We decided to seek a third opinion.

'I'm giving him a hongbao,' said this fellow.

I scoffed. No sincerity.

I finally decided to go straight to the birthday boy. Don't be shy in dropping hints, I quipped.

'Hongbao, thanks.'

Total time taken to settle this guy's birthday present: 20 minutes.

Guys honestly don't care. I can speak from experience. I'm surprised anyone even remembers my birthday.

So a gift is a gift is a gift. It's something you are getting only because you were, wow, born 30 years ago.

When that's the only reason free things are thrown my way, anything above $20 will make me happy.

Women like free things too, I'm sure. But they already have so many things. Anything you buy them is bound to be already in their wardrobe or closet somewhere - except less nice. And in a colour they don't really like.

It's made extra stressful because many of my female friends also see gifts as an ode to friendship. (Wow, you remembered that three months ago I said I needed a bracelet to match my purple dress. You are indeed a true friend. This other person wanted to buy me magazines - what the heck?)

So it's not a matter of men knowing men's needs better and women for women. To get a good gift, anyone - guy or girl - has to observe and listen really hard.

But when it comes to truly great gifts, I believe in fate (that's what you say when you don't have the energy to stalk your female friends).

Seriously though, nothing looks good enough when you're looking hard for it. Great gifts sometimes just come your way.

I feel I've only ever bought one truly outstanding gift for a girl before - a woven cloth chicken from Chiang Mai, which I spotted while I was casually browsing at a night market there a few years ago.

I know it doesn't sound like much. But this chicken is really rather cute - a plump, brown hen that comes with its own little chicks that can be tucked into pockets sewn on its side (I never said it looked like a real chicken).

I had a colleague who had a taste for quirky items like that, and I just knew I had to get it for her, even though there was no occasion for it.

The sheer glee on her face when she saw it was vindication enough.

As for this departing colleague of mine, I eventually settled for a Hello Kitty Convenience Store toy that I found at a mall. I know she loves Hello Kitty, but I was worried she would have this already, and 20 other superior versions.

After she opened the present, she texted me: 'Yay! Thanks! I can never have too much Hello Kitty.'

I'll never know whether she was just being nice or if she genuinely loves it.

But no pulling me to one side? No mixed look of sympathy and pity?

Good enough for me.

This article was first published in The Sunday Times.

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