Kimchi and the Korean Christmas

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Christmas Around the World

Yesterday marked the first of a series of posts about Christmas abroad, with the fabulous Heather from over at There’s No Place Like Oz sharing her thoughts on her first Christmas abroad in a candid and interesting fashion. You’ll be pleased to know that we’ll soon be seeing further posts from Fallon at Fallon’s Healthy Life; Brooke from Brooke vs. the World; Hannah from Hannah DeMilita; and Heather from The Kimchi Chronicles as well. Exciting times ahead!

It’s true that living abroad has its difficult moments regardless of the time of year. There are going to be nights when you miss your family so much that it hurts, cold and rainy days when you’d kill to be back home in your favourite sunny spot, and dull evenings when nothing would make you happier than a bang on the door from an old friend on another continent.

But I think it’s fair to say that Christmas is perhaps the most difficult time for a lot of people in their time abroad. I know that’s how it was for me during the Christmas of 2007. I’d been in South Korea less than a month and was struggling to adapt to the change in lifestyle and having to cope with it without the safety net that my wonderful family provided.

But (and I’m going to steal from Heather here) – it’s perhaps easiest to explain why I was struggling so much by telling you a little about Christmas in the Bush residence.

The Bush Christmas

For as long as I can remember, my mother has ensured that Christmas was always a big production. Whether we were spending it crammed into my grandmother’s tiny Newcastle house or spending it in the comfort of our own home – it seemed Mum lived to max out credit cards and empty savings accounts for the big day. I don’t want to give the impression that this was what made Christmas special though – although an extra few gifts and an extra kilogram of prawns certainly didn’t hurt things.

We set up the Christmas tree on the 1st of December, and each year there is a different colour scheme. We’ve ranged from the traditional silvers and reds to more unique pastels, and every year Mum adds to our already large collection of decorations. Each year we spend a few hours decorating, stringing lights, and listening to the first Christmas carols of the season.

I heft Izaak up to the top of the three so he can place the angel

Soon after that my brothers and I get into the all-important task of decorating the house. Every year we grow more ambitious in our decorative plans, and I’m assured that this year the house has been decorated to Clark Griswold levels of illumination by Leigh and Dominik. For the most part, my role in the day’s work involves standing about supervising with a beer in hand while my two more limber siblings scramble about on the tin roof pinning down strands of lights.

You missed a spot guys!

As the big day draws closer we all go about our Christmas shopping. Some of us are secretive about it while others openly seek advice for our last minute eBay and Amazon purchases. By Christmas Eve we’ve already got the tree surrounded by the various gifts we’ve bought from all corners of the globe. In years gone by these never amounted to much more than a few dollars spent on each family member, but in recent years with us all having jobs – it’s becoming increasingly common to find a garden set or an XBox crammed under a tree that once played host to such lavish gifts as bath salts and second-hand DVDs.

Christmas Eve is a blur of activity. It’s one of the rare days where Mum gets us all out of bed early and has us all in action from outset. Whether we’re in the kitchen helping with the cooking, out in the shed wrapping gifts, or on a last minute run into town for beer or supplies – there’s no shortage of work on the big day. There are a few traditional dishes that you can expect to see on the Bush family table come Christmas Eve and these include Devon Lilies, Sugar Cookies, Mini Christmas Puddings, and plenty of chips and dip.

The table all set up for our Christmas Eve dinner

After all of the cooking is done and the house is cleaned, we gather around the table to eat the fantastic foods we’ve spent the day working on and have a few drinks. There’s punch on the table and cold beers in the fridge, and we sit back and indulge in a bit of that before heading to Church. It’s a long while since I’ve considered myself particularly religious, but Christmas is the one time of year that you won’t hear me complaining about going to church. There’s something about the clear night, the crickets chirping out in the field by the church, and the unity of singing carols with friends and strangers alike that still gives Christmas the same magical feeling that had me believing in Santa as a kid.

After the service we head back home to eat some more and indulge in a tradition of my own creation – that being watching the hilarious Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It’s hardly a festive Christmas tale, but it randomly started a few years back and we’ve made a point of continuing the tradition every year since. My brothers even keep it going in the years that I’m not home for the big day. Then it’s off to bed so that Santa/my folks can sneak out and put all of the gifts under the tree. Even with most of us in our 20s now, we still make a point of not leaving our rooms once we head to bed. We’re big kids like that.

About half of the 2009 Christmas haul

We’re back up at the crack of dawn to creep out and see what is under the tree, and as soon as it hits 6am we’re allowed to shake my parents out of their beds and get to unwrapping gifts. We always start with the stocking and then move on to taking turns to unwrap our gifts. This invariably leads to Izaak being the only one left with gifts to open at the very end. He’s spoiled.

Once the gifts are opened and safely put away in our rooms, Mum whips up some bacon and eggs for breakfast and we’re basically left to our own devices. Most years this means a nap for myself and my folks; playing around on the net for the boys, and playing with new toys for my youngest siblings. In the past two years, it’s also meant long distance calls to my girlfriends in whatever countries they have been in at the time.

We’re back up late in the afternoon for a Christmas Day lunch of prawns, lunch meats, salads, and more punch. There are Christmas crackers and bad jokes and a few frayed tempers on account of a lack of sleep, and then it’s back to a lazy day. More sleep, a DVD or two, or even just a swim out in the pool. To me it just isn’t Christmas without being stinking hot and needing the relief of a swim in the pool or a cold shower.

The family gathered around for Christmas Lunch
Dom and I wrestling in the pool. Christmas Day 2009.

I love my Christmases at home, and being away from one for the first time was probably the hardest thing I did in 2007. Harder than stepping onto my first plane or saying goodbye to my baby brother at the airport while he cried his eyes out.

Christmas in Korea

As I said earlier, I had been in Korea less than a month by the time Christmas rolled around. I’d been lucky enough to have a good friend travel down from Seoul with some friends for my first weekend in Korea, so I’d made a few friends in my new hometown who made the whole affair just that little bit easier to cope with. Still, it was a drastic change for me to be all rugged up against the bitterly cold Korean winters after twenty-three years of celebrating the big day with the hot summer sun and a few pre-Christmas BBQs.

One of my classes gets into the Christmas spirit

Korea doesn’t really do Christmas. At least not with the same pomp and circumstance we do in the Western world. Sure, there’s Christmas decorations up everywhere and even the occasional Christmas carol – but that tingle of anticipation just isn’t there. The kids in my classes, while excited about getting a present, didn’t seem any more excited than they did on the average Friday. Rather than having a week or two to unwind around the holiday, I worked until 9.30pm on Christmas Eve and was expected back on Boxing Day for business as usual.

My mother is a wonderful woman, and I think she was well aware just how difficult that Christmas away would be for me. I’d let to get my first pay check and I was still painfully shy, so the most I’d managed to contribute to my own Christmas had been picking up a cute little tree at the nearby Lotte Mart.

My tiny little Christmas Tree. Gifts from home make it a little less sad

My mother wasn’t going to let that be the extent of my Christmas though. She sent not one but three massive care packages over. The first contained gifts, the second contained a veritable feast of non-perishable Christmas goodies, and the last came with a few extra gifts and all of the tinsel and Christmas decorations a boy could want. My characterless little apartment soon felt and looked like somebody lived in it, and uTorrent provided me with enough Christmas carols to make the place seem a little less empty on the cold nights leading up to the big day.

Six months into the future that apartment with its mattress on the floor acting as a bed and its disgusting kitchen would feel like home to me. I’d have brought girls home to that bed, cooked meals for friends in the kitchen, and had a few drunken nights in with good mates. At this point, my sole visitors had been my co-worker to help deliver a battered old PC for me to use, and my boss to drop me off after I’d touched down in the country. It felt about as far from home as anyplace could.

I’d been lucky enough to befriend Kirk (a fellow Aussie), Liz (Canadian), Brodie (another Canadian who worked with Brooke in the Ukraine), and Joy (a cute American lass I had a crush on) earlier in the month and Kirk and Liz, in particular, made an effort to ensure my Christmas wasn’t a completely depressing affair. I have fond memories of Kirk picking me up on his scooter and scaring the living daylights out of me as he weaved through traffic and jolted us wildly about while he mounted curbs on our way to Liz’s apartment for a small Christmas gathering.

On the way, we picked up a webcam so I could at least see my family for Christmas, and the ensuing night of good times was just what the doctor ordered. We each contributed a little something from home and drank until we felt a little better about our situations.

Not impressed at being photographed. Christmas Eve 2007
Aussie vs. Aussie on my first white Christmas

It was these same people who would ensure Christmas Eve and Christmas Day wouldn’t be spent alone in my apartment. After finishing work on Christmas Eve I’d hitched a cab over to their dong (suburb) and met at a foreigner-friendly bar that would be our haunt for the next few months. A small horde of foreigners had gathered there to drink beer and find company with like-minded individuals, and by the time I stumbled home later that night I had a good buzz on and wasn’t feeling so sorry for myself. Misery loves company, and it particularly loves company that makes it feel a little less miserable.

Back in my apartment, I set about moving my PC so that it would be closer to my bed (thus preventing me from having to get out of bed in the icy dawn) and in doing so accidentally bumped loose the video card. Of course, I didn’t know this at the time and simply assumed my beat up second-hand PC had died. I was distraught. How was I going to watch my baby brother open his presents? How was I going to see my mother’s smiling face and tell her how much I hated being away?

I’m not ashamed to say I fell asleep in tears, and not even Die Hard on the TV could make me feel any less miserable.

I slept right through until 7 am local time, which meant that my family back home had already finished opening presents and had moved on to eating Christmas breakfast. I called them up and my mother listened in as I opened their gifts to me. She made announcements to everybody to let them know what I’d got and what I thought, and then she wished me a Merry Christmas and had to rush off to prepare the Christmas lunch. I don’t remember a great deal about what I got that Christmas. There were a few video games and a digital photo frame that (sadly) never worked.

Miserable, I wandered down the street to grab breakfast at Paris Baguette before heading to a PC room to blog about my misery on whatever online diary site I’d been using at the time. I hated Korea that day. I hated that everything was still open on Christmas Day. I hated that I had nobody to spend the day with, and that I was cold while my family were back at home sipping beers.

When I got home later that afternoon, things took a turn for the better. Frustrated at my computer, I gave it the whack that somehow bumped the video card back into place and fixed the problem. A quick viewing of the Shrek Christmas Special put me in better spirits, and soon I had a call from Kirk to invite me out for a Christmas dinner with the Cheomdan crew. Outback is hardly on a par with dinner at home with the family, but sitting around that table with new friends made me realize that my life wasn’t all doom and gloom. It wasn’t Christmas at home, and that was sad, but it was a new experience. Of the people who sat around the table with me that day – I’m still friends with most, and close friends with over half of them.

Waiting in the cold for a chance to eat

As I prepare to spend not one but two Christmases in a row out on the road, I’m reminded of how difficult it was to be away from my family and all of its traditions on the big day. Christmas Day of 2007 remains one of the toughest days of my life, but a few years on I realize that it was also a massively character developing day. I cried my tears and felt alone, but I got through it and emerged out the other side with new friends and a greater appreciation for the new life I’d started.

I often tell people that my first year in Korea was the best thing I’d ever done, and it’s because of the challenges it presented to me and how I dealt with them. I didn’t always handle things gracefully, but I always survived. And when I returned home for Christmas in 2008 I not only appreciated my family Christmas more than ever before, but I’d also come to appreciate just what I am capable of and how much stronger I was than I had ever imagined before I’d taken that chance.

Being away from friends and family is never easy, but there’s nothing to be gained from wallowing in misery. You’re not the only person out on the road spending the day alone, and there’s solace in knowing that.

I’ll spend Christmas of 2010 in Rotarua and Christmas of 2011 in South Korea, and while I’ll miss my family and all of the trimmings, I’m excited to see what the day has in store for me as I again approach it from a different angle.

Merry Christmas! I hope, whether you’re spending it with kith and kin or you’re out on the road in a strange place, it finds you happy and healthy.

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