It’s a strange thing, that first Christmas away from home.
While I realize that not everybody is lucky enough to have a family as close-knit as mine and may not revert to their five-year-old self come December 25th every year, I’m sure anybody who has been abroad for the big day can relate to feelings of loneliness, homesickness, and a substantial diminishing of the magic that makes Christmas my favorite time of the year.
In December of 2007 I found myself alone for the festive season I embarked on the first of my two years living and working in South Korea as an ESL teacher. And while Gwangju would come to feel more like home to me than any place had before (or has since), my first month in a strange new land was full of challenges that were made all the harder by the fact I would be away from my wonderful family for my favorite day of the year.
While I look back at Christmas of 2007 and remember what a difficult time it was for me, I also look back at it as an immensely character building experience.
In a lot of ways, I didn’t really grow up until I took those first tentative steps out of the support network my family had always provided for me. While I had briefly moved to Newcastle after university to make a life for myself, a few personal defeats there had seen me retreat back to my home-town with my tail between my legs.
I’d spent the 18 months prior to heading to South Korea working a check-out in my home town and relying on my family for pretty much everything. It wasn’t a particularly glamorous life for a 23-year-old.
So while I still remember being on the verge of tears upon realizing my PC wouldn’t be working on Christmas morning for me to Skype with the family, I also remember that later that day I would be dragged out to Outback Steakhouse for Christmas dinner by relative strangers who would become good friends and constant features in my life for my next two years in Korea.
Yeah, Christmas away from home can be hard, but I found a few ways to make it a little bearable. I thought I’d share those with you.
#1 – The power of Christmas music
Whether you’re a fan of Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You or a traditionalist who finds O Holy Night to be the pick of the litter, there’s no debating that Christmas carols have a wonderful way of capturing the spirit of the season and main-lining Christmas cheer into your system.
While my Spartan Korean apartment didn’t feel a whole lot like home, a bit of Josh Groban’s Noel mixed with the soundtracks from movies such as Home Alone and Love, Actually allowed me to drown out the constant traffic and bickering Korean couples and pretend I was in a place where Christmas meant a little something.
But I went one better. I used my ESL teaching as an opportunity to spread a little Christmas cheer as well.
When one of my older classes – all boys in their early teens – expressed an interest in learning about Christmas, I ran with it.
“What Christmas song would you like to learn?” I asked as I handed out a list of names and flicked the CD player on. I eagerly anticipated hearing what the boys would want to sing.
Jingle bells? Nope.
White Christmas? No chance.
Santa Claus is Coming to Town? Get out of here!
No, the boys settled upon the manliest song in human history. I talk, of course, of Kylie Minogue’s rendition of Santa Baby.
To be fair, Korean teenagers aren’t exactly the epitome of manliness to begin with. None of them had yet had their voices break and their choices of brightly colored sweaters were more Bill Cosby than Justin Timberlake. But the six of them standing together and chirping out the innuendo laden song was too much.
I had to duck out of the room to laugh along with my co-worker.
To their credit, the boys really ran with it. They not only sang it passably well, but one of them conjured up a few moves from a Wonder Girls clip that would have been provocative had they been performed by a girl. A boy saucily winking after asking Santa for a ring? Hilarity.
Seeing the enjoyment the kids got out of their rendition of the song was great though. I may have chuckled about it, but they loved hamming it up. While other classes made Christmas cards or spoke about Christmas in Korea, those six boys rocked the hell out of a less orthodox Christmas carol and put a smile on my dial at the same time.
#2 – Decorations and Familiar Food
One of the saving graces of my first Christmas abroad was the unending generosity of my mother. I’d always appreciated how much my mother did for me, but that first Christmas abroad saw her spend an inordinate amount of money on making sure I had the comforts from home.
Not one, not two, but four care packages arrived over the weeks leading into Christmas. While I may have been most excited about the two full of carefully wrapped presents, I definitely appreciated the ones labeled ‘food’ and ‘decorations’.
Before too long my spacious but characterless apartment had tinsel hanging above the window, a wreath on the door, a miniature Christmas tree balanced precariously atop the TV, and a store-bought fibre-optically lit Christmas tree blinking merrily in the space I’d later fill with a treadmill.
While I didn’t have any formal Christmas dinner, I ate like a king leading into the holiday. Shortbread, Christmas pudding, Roses chocolates, custard, candy canes, and chocolate coins became a regular part of my pre-Christmas diet.
Hence the need for that treadmill I mentioned…
It wasn’t the same as having my family around. It wasn’t quite so good as sipping ice-cold egg nog while watching Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with my brothers or nibbling on fresh made devon lilies at dawn as we waited for my parents to stumble bleary eyed out of their room.
But it was a good deal more festive than Paris Baguette bought pastries, corner store kimbap, and 7-11 sandwiches. It turned my new house into something resembling a home and long after the decorations came down, I still felt as if the space was mine.
I’m not sure how long it would have taken had I not spent that Christmas there.
#3 – Find Fellow Expats
Unless you’ve opted to spend your festive season camping under the stars in Mongolia or sailing around the world on your lonesome, chances are you’re not the only foreigner feeling a little homesick over the holidays. As Breakaway Backpacker said in his recent entry about Thanksgiving abroad, spending the holiday with other expats is a great way to shake off the blues and make new friends in the process.
I’d been in Korea all of a month by the time Christmas rolled around and despite the best efforts of a former high school classmate to introduce me into the social scene, I’d not yet become the fixture of the Gwangju night-life that I would later in my time there.
But I was lucky enough to have met a few people and they came through for me on what had been a rough day.
I’d spent the day on the verge of complete breakdown after my computer’s death prevented me from the planned Skype video Christmas party my parents and I had planned. The lack of computer also meant I wouldn’t be able to play the games my mother had sent me as gifts.
I hated that the rest of Korea seemed to go on as if it were just another day, even though I understood that the holiday held little cultural or religious significance for the locals. I hated that while my family were having Christmas lunch and enjoying one another’s company, I was watching the Shrek Christmas Special in a smoky PC room and nibbling disinterestedly at one of the ‘ham croissants’ I was such a big fan of.
So when Kirk (a fellow Aussie) called to invite me out with a few of his friends for Christmas dinner, I was understandably excited. I pulled on my new sweater, snatched up the already faded piece of paper with my address on it, and rushed out to flag a taxi and ride to the Gwangju Bus Terminal.
I’ll always remember that night fondly. Not because the food at Outback was particularly good, but because it marked my first step into forging a new life for myself. As I reminisced about Australia with Kirk, flirted with cute-as-a-button joy, and laughed out loud with the irrepressible Liz – I realized that I’d survived my first month abroad and I’d managed to make some new friends in the process.
Over the coming months I’d spend more and more time with that group of people. We’d have board game nights and mid-week drinking sessions. We’d go on road trips together and I’d even make out with one of them somewhere down the line.
And no, it wasn’t Kirk…
But spending the day with people who were in the same position as me helped immensely. It took my mind off of the self pity and the sadness and pushed me into new social circles. My two years in Korea were made immensely more enjoyable as a result of Kirk’s phone call that day.
#4 – Embrace the Strangeness
Christmas in another country isn’t going to be exactly as you celebrated it at home. That’s not a bad thing.
For me, Christmas had almost always taken place on stinking hot days. Christmas Day meant running underneath sprinklers, lounging in front of the air-con, or wrestling in the pool with my brothers. And while it wouldn’t snow until a few days after Christmas, it was certainly a different experience to battle icy paths and freezing cold in the lead-up to December 25th.
I might have found doing Christmas dinner at an Outback Steakhouse or buying a pre-decorated Christmas tree for 25,000 won ($20 Australian) in a supermarket strange, but when in Rome…
At the time it all felt like some pale imitation of my favorite holiday, but hindsight brings some much-needed perspective. I’ll always prefer to spend my Christmases at home with the family, but there was a certain charm to being out in the big bad world on my own and seeing Christmas through new eyes is an experience I am glad I had.
Have you ever spent a Christmas away from home? How did you make the day special?