This was hard to get used to at first, but I'm starting to see the beauty of Korea's culture of extreme reciprocity. There is something helpful and community building about a cultural norm of mutual support.
At every wedding and funeral, the friends and acquaintances are usually expected to give between $50 and $100 - more if you're family. And it's always, always cash - no shopping necessary. We saw this boomerang in our favor at John David's first birthday party. After being a recipient of generous gifts, I'm now much more inclined to be generous as well.
If someone helps you out, a little thank you gift is the polite response. I recently received a set of handkerchiefs for attending a funeral in a city about an hour away.
If you go to someone's house, even for a few minutes, you never go empty handed. People usually stop at the store to pick up some fruit or baked goods. Sure it's a cultural obligation of sorts, but it also kind of warms the heart.
Often, especially when I'm dealing with issues inside the complex political network of KNU, I am very aware of the culture of reciprocity. A favor paid now will "earn points" for a favor needed later. Although there is always the danger (or the reality) of mixed motives, there also seems to be the practical result of making most people a little more generous and pliable (at least if your "account" is on the positive side).
Slowly in my eight years here, I have stopped fighting this culture of reciprocity, and I'm still learning to embrace it - albeit with my own Western twist. It's different, but it works.