Goodbye bribes turn golden gifts to straw

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Goodbye bribes turn golden gifts to straw


Saying farewell to a friend is heartbreaking. Hong Min expressed the pain of separation in his song “Farewell” from the 80s: “As I leave you and as you send me off, we can’t say everything we want to/ But I must tell you one thing/ I loved you only, and I loved you truly.” Parting is often accompanied by regret or tears. Sometimes, you think expressing your feelings is not enough so you give a gift or money as a token of friendship. This is a beautiful custom.

But the problem is that the material desire to possess more often makes you lose control. And that’s when a deal is made. American anthropologist Alan Fiske proposed three kids of deals. “Communal sharing” is when there is no distinction between what’s mine and what’s yours. It is often found in small groups like within a family. “Equality matching” is an exchange of goods and services: I scratch your back, and you scratch mine. “Market pricing” is based on a more complicated calculation. As money and goods are exchanged, gains and losses, credits and liabilities, gifts and bribes are traded.

Lately, the nature of the farewell gift has become more like a market pricing exchange, and sits on the ambiguous line between gift and bribe. The difference between the two is simple. It is the difference between oblivion and memory. A gift is all about the satisfaction of giving. Since you don’t expect anything in return, you often forget about it. When you give a bribe, however you expect to be paid back. As if you are the creditor, you remember and wait for the benefits of the bribe. Just as French philosopher Jacques Derrida said, a gift exists when there is no exchange nor sense of liability. It is also in line with Confucius’ ideas on being a gentleman: “One should receive his share with a high moral standard.”

A high-ranking official at the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs was fired a few days ago for receiving 7.5 million won ($7,000) in goods and cash as farewell gifts. He received a gold key, valued at 2 million won, and 1 million won in cash from a ministry official working under him. From a contractor, he received a pearl ring, valued at 2.5 million won. The gifts were not motivated by sincerity and affection but seem to have been aimed at earning special favors. These people turned the farewell gift into a means of palm-greasing and accumulating wealth. It’s sad to see we are living in an age of distrust, when even innocent gifts from the heart are looked upon with jaundiced eyes.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Ko Dae-hoon
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