The Anti-Gift Guide


I am seven years old. I start editing my holiday long-list in November and hand it to my mother, who wrinkles her nose. “Okay,” she says. “Is this pink ‘Dear Diary’ just a pink diary? A new notebook, is that what you want?”

“NoOoO!” I shriek. I tell her all about Dear Diary, which is electronic and password-protected and I can use it for school and to remember people’s birthdays and it’s so important, Mom, it’s so important. I start hiccupping in my attempt to communicate this, the greatest of needs.

On Christmas morning, which is also my father’s birthday, I skip downstairs before the sun rises and tremble with excitement as boxes are passed, foil-printed gift wrap crumpled into unwieldy roses. Suddenly I’m pulling Dear Diary out of its plastic clamshell! I squeal loudly and spend the rest of the day typing in my secrets. Then I forget about Dear Diary. I never use it again. 


I am eight. I’m in a Walgreens with my dad and his mother, waiting for someone’s prescription. My grandmother hands me a big wad of cash and tells me to run up to my dad. “Tell him it’s a gift,” she says.

I stare at the hundreds, then dart away. I wheel around at the school supply aisle, pulled into it as if by an offstage cane. I walk to the marker section and stand in front of the Holy Grail: the 128-count box of Crayola crayons, new metallic colors included. This is both a wild senseless luxury and also the pinnacle of my material desire. I am synesthetic and obsessed with writing words in the colors I see them. I vibrate with happiness. Tonight is the night that you could become a new kind of girl.

I pick up the box and run to my dad, hand him the crayons and the cash. “I thought maybe I could get this crayon box,” I say to him. He’s thumbing through the money, staggered. He ignores what I’ve said and goes to find my grandmother. I put the crayon box down next to the blood-pressure machine and figure that somehow I’ve gone too far.

A few weeks later, I vaguely arrive at the understanding that my grandmother’s gift was meant to cover months of unpaid tuition for me and my brother. In my Lisa Frank mind, a shadow begins to take shape: an understanding that adulthood is conducted on a scale without crayons, and that my parents are not unlimited, that things I can’t see yet are crumbling.


I’m 14, locked into an echoing fluorescent racquetball court with my after-school phalanx of cheerleaders, all of us in matching high ponytails and white shoes. It’s the day of the junior class ring ceremony, which I’ll participate in next year.

I stare at the glinting hands of C—, a Medusa-type-of-sexy brunette whose father has chosen to celebrate this occasion not with the pedestrian school-sponsored option but a $30,000 engagement ring instead. Five years later, I will see Damien Hirst’s diamond-crusted skull in a pitch-black gallery and flash back to this moment: 12 girls huddled around a brilliant, angry shine.

C— doesn’t want to take the ring off for practice. Our coach understands. I get myself into position as C— and another girl crouch on either side of me. I place my hands on their shoulders, feel the girl behind me grip my waist. I avoid my discomfort and jump, placing my feet in their hands, rocketing up seven feet into nothing. I teeter atop their palms. I go through the motions; our shrill chanting rises and expands in the room like a cloud. I brace myself for the cradle. They toss me up and catch me in the basket of their arms.

I feel the scratch as it happens, see the thin red river bloom against the top of my thigh. C—rushes off to clean up her ring and I want to tell her that I’m sorry.


I’m 21, a few days away from 22, in an unmapped Peace Corps village. I get up in the blue darkness and listen to the cow outside moan; my host mom is hung over, she must have slept in. I make my oatmeal. My toddler host brother waddles into the kitchen and takes a shit right into a bowl.

I wonder if he ate last night. I consider making him breakfast, then decide against it. If I do it today, I’ll have to do it tomorrow; it’s easier to be selfish than inconsistent. I walk to school as the sun rises, as the little boys in black fourth-hand suits play tag with their backpacks on, crunching frost on the soccer field. I enter the unheated concrete building and go to my class of eighth-grade girls, my first every morning. My chest clutches when I see my desk covered with handmade riches, each trinket and toy and purse and potholder sewn carefully from felt and embroidered with my name. Hearts are scattered across these precious little objects, miniature yurts, cards that say “I love you.”

I look at my students, smiling at me so sweetly, in uniforms that make them look like space-age cartoon maids. Just a few years away from marriage, they are so much more generous than I am. I can’t remake their world for them. I fail them every day.


I’m 23. I’m attached to a person who hates accumulating objects, and the sum of my short experience makes me lean the same way. But I am not as minimal by nature; I used to sleep with seven pillows in the bed. I decide, as they taught me in Texas, to start by faking it and trust that the feeling will come.

I start by keeping the Mother Jones article on Amazon’s packing warehouses as the default page on my browser; I try not to be too harsh on myself when I cave in to the ease of it and buy a dozen books anyway. I dwell on the statistics that flood me with the most disgust. I block inspiration board websites after I understand it makes no sense to hate-read your friends’ material aspirations. I learn that when I want to buy the pleated leather skirt, it comes out of the desire to be wearing nothing. I learn that when I want that hot pink lipstick, what I want is for someone to thumb their fingers across my mouth. I stop thinking of building my life and instead try to unmake it.

I’m 23, about to turn 24. When my boyfriend asks me what I want for my birthday, I look at holiday gift guides on the Internet. I feel tiny yearnings sparkle within me then extinguish themselves completely. In the absence of urges, I forget about the question for weeks. When he asks me for the last time, I say that I want nothing. I’m a little surprised to realize that I mean it. I can’t think of a single thing.


Jia Tolentino lives in Ann Arbor.


33 Comments / Post A Comment

bgprincipessa (#699)

1. I love this!!
2. WHAT THE HELL, what kind of shitty coach allows a girl to perform a lift and catch with a freaking huge ring on???

j-i-a (#746)

@bgprincipessa A coach from Texas! Diamonds are the very definition of safety there

kellyography (#250)

@j-i-a That would have NEVER flown (zing!) on my squad. We had to practice with competition rules (except uniforms) – no hair touching or below shoulders, nails so short you can’t see them with your palms facing you, and definitely no jewelry of any kind. In any case, the last sentence of that bullet speaks volumes.

j-i-a (#746)

@kellyography Oh man, I just got a flashback to some girl’s belly button dolphin-chain-whatever getting pulled out–AAHHHH

@bgprincipessa I know! That made me kinda sick.

j-i-a (#746)

Girl 1: Frankie likes you!
Girl 2: Yeuck!
Dear Diary: “Yeuck!”

j-i-a (#746)

@j-i-a ps those deleted comments above are me completely forgetting the taut, gritty dialogue of the Dear Diary commercial and asking Logan who stole her diary

@j-i-a WAY LAME

j-i-a (#746)

@Logan Sachon I don’t think she understood what those words meant

j-i-a (#746)

@j-i-a that applies to both the actress in the commercial (who to be fair was probably straight off the set of Legends of the Hidden Temple thus stressed etc) and me with the post tags

@j-i-a “Please, no one wants to read your diary.” -my mom’s reason for not buying me my own electronic Dear Diary to replace my Baby-sitter’s Club diary.

EM (#1,012)

Living right next to the Central Library in Vancouver (which is a very nice place to hang out) has cured me of most of my book-buying/hoarding instincts. I get everything I want, I read it, I give it back, I get new books. Moving every year has made me realise that owning hundreds of heavy books is not a good decision for me.

@Michelle Yes ditto! I get all my books from the library, my kindle, or borrow them from my sister. I have a terrible memory and liked to own books so I could remember what I read, but then I got a book diary of sorts so I write down everything I read and, problem solved.

I love the public library.

bgprincipessa (#699)

@polka dots vs stripes Hello! GoodReads or LibraryThing. Do it.

@bgprincipessa I’ve considered both of those! But with my reader’s journal thingy and my kindle wishlist I’m covered on both the to-read and finished-reading front.

Plus I’m a little social-networked out.

j-i-a (#746)

@Michelle HOW TO RESIST BOOK HOARDING is a piece that I would like to read and will probably never be able to write

EM (#1,012)

@j-i-a Oooh, I’ll attempt it.

gl (#5,458)


How to resist book hoarding:

Look for a sublet in NYC and go to the apartment of a distant acquaintance who is looking for a roommate. Walk in and find that, while the bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom are Manhattan sized the living room is that of an apartment outside of the city. There are tall bookshelves against the walls. Yes, this, this is where you want to live. There are 6 bookshelves when you move in with books that are organized and catalogued. She is generous — she encourages you to read her books. They are not for looking only, they are for reading. Yes, this, this.

You live there. You are not by nature neat, but she is haphazard and careless with her possessions. She hates if people crease the corners of pages, crack the spines, or write in the margins, but she tosses her books aside and forgets about then right away. You find them under the sofa in the living room, in bags strewn over the front hall. You step over them when you walk in the apartment. They are the same bags that a cashier put them in at the checkout line of a store. The receipts flutter out sometimes, $40 of books, $60, $100. They are her books but after several months they have been joined by new bags, new fluttering receipts. You have to step over more and more piles to get to the kitchen, to get to the bathroom. They are her bags and you feel guilty for doing so but you move them out of the way. She does not notice. She has forgotten they were ever there. She has already moved on to the next bag of books, the next one after that. She has only read about 20% of her books, the percentage dropping each year. She buys the books because what if she doesn’t have them? What if she can’t find them in a library? What if she needs them right away? She used to read more but with work she no longer has time.

There are 7 bookshelves soon, then 9, 12. The bookshelves seem less welcoming now; they are closing in on you. They can’t keep up with the number of books. Piles grow in front of the bookshelves, small at first, but larger with time. She has boxes in the front hall of books that she says she is going to donate, but they stay there, one month, two, a year. You have ceded the living room to her, it is her domain, you can barely cross the room. It is a maze of piles of books.

Reading fiction for pleasure gives you panic attacks now, it is hard to read and not feel like there is something else that you should do. You go to other people’s homes and you can see their floors and you covet them. You covet their empty floors. Sometimes, sometimes, you go into a room that has one bookshelf that is full of well loved books, with cracked spines and bent pages and hand-written notes and you have nostalgia for five years ago when you would have found that charming.

I loved this too! I think the biggest change I’ve had over the past few years is asking for things that get used up (replacing a favorite lip gloss I ran out of, stationery, PJ’s I’ll run into the ground, etc etc), not just things things. People can give me a gift and feel good and I don’t feel bad about accumulating stuff.

I do need to stop shopping at Amazon. I pretty much only buy kindle books at this point though.

Norrey (#407)

Love. My rule for the last few years has been to give experiences instead of gifts (gift certificates to the theater and a nice restaurant as a date night for my parents, a trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts for my sister, some really good homemade chocolates for my partner, etc). I’ve always loved giving gifts, but I have the same problems with consumerism that you seem to, so this is a happy medium.

julebsorry (#1,572)

I think this is beautifully written. Thanks for sharing!

mckinsey (#2,085)

Jia, I originally registered on this site to comment on another piece of yours. This was great as well – your writing is gorgeous.

j-i-a (#746)

@mckinsey So nice of y’all to say. Thank you!

Fig. 1 (#632)

“Aww, you got me nothing! How bolshy of you!”

(I love this btw, always excited to see Jia on here)

AUGH, your writing is beautiful. I loved all of this

tuntastic (#2,769)

The last sentence of bullet 4 made me wince. Amazing.

Love your writing Jia. Also, I remember those Dear Diary diaries. Oh, how I wanted one.

jfruh (#161)

OK, just making sure fully understand this: normally there’s some kind ceremony for junior cheerleaders (or maybe just juniors in general) where you get a class ring or something, purchased by your parents, except in the case of C—, instead of a class ring, she got an engagement ring? Of the sort a man traditionally gives a woman when he wants o marry her? Only she got it from her father? And also it cost $30,000?

j-i-a (#746)

@jfruh YES. Juniors in general. And you got it exactly correct. Stranger than fiction?

ishotferdinand (#2,819)

Were you in Mongolia by any chance? Hung-over host mom, space age cartoon maids, mini gift yurts (gers)…sounds damn familiar.

j-i-a (#746)

@ishotferdinand Hahahaha I was in the luxe version of ger life, complete with (flickering) electrical grid: Kyrgyzstan! Did you do PC in Mongolia? Our country directors would always be like, HEY Y’ALL QUIT BITCHING JUST BE GLAD YOU’RE NOT IN MONGOLIA LIVING IN A YURT IN THE SNOW

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