Christmas in Korea: Spending the Holidays Abroad

By | 2019-01-16T09:29:06-05:00 January 16th, 2019|Adventures, Korea, Narratives, Winter|

There are many upsides to living in Korea and teaching in the public schools here.  The pay and benefits are excellent, the culture is interesting, the standard of living is high and the social life is great.  You are in a land of countless mountains to hike as well as some of the world’s most modern, booming cities.  And, you have the opportunity to travel all over Asia during the generous vacation time you are offered.

Unfortunately, that vacation time does not fall around Christmas.  Although about a quarter of Korea’s population is Christian and many others celebrate a secular Christmas, it is not a major holiday here.   Many Koreans treat it as something like Valentine’s Day, where they take their significant other out for dinner.  It is not a day where extended families get together and tends to be quite low key.  Christmas Day and New Year’s Day are national holidays, but apart from that, you will not get any days off for the holidays.  As such, it is not generally possible to go home and visit family and friends.  I have heard of some people taking unpaid time off to go home, but it is very uncommon and requires an accommodating school.  Scrooged if you do, Grinched if you don’t, I’m afraid!

Terrible puns aside, you can still make the best of it and have a great Christmas here.  Although I have lived abroad most of the time since 2015, this was the first year that I was unable to come home a visit family at Christmas time.  I’m not usually prone to homesickness, but I must admit to feeling some as Christmas Day approached – particularly as I worked 9-5 on Christmas Eve as if it were any other Monday.  Thankfully, this year’s Christmas turned out to be enjoyable and memorable, even if it was out of the ordinary.  I am lucky to have a wonderful girlfriend here to spend it with, so that made it that much more enjoyable for me.  Many teachers and expats also get together for group dinners and parties.

Nothing like a random snowman in the apartment building’s hallway to put you in the Christmas spirit!

After work on Christmas Eve, I headed to Emily’s place in Yeonggwang – a great little town on the West coast of Jeollanamdo where I will also be teaching starting in April.  A couple of weeks prior, we had decorated a tiny Christmas tree that would make Charlie Brown proud.  I think we spent a total of 9,000 won (about US$8) at Daiso.  For some reason, it’s impossible to buy Christmas lights in Korea that don’t flash and change colors constantly.  It reminds me of the bombardment of neon signs that one sees on any given city street in Korea.  Still, it was a cute little tree, and it was ours, even if it was a bit tacky.

Before arriving in Yeonggwang, I met up with Emily and one of her school’s Korean teachers in Gwangju.  Her friend Ayesha, whom she worked with for two years in Beijing, was also spending her first Christmas away from home.  This particular Korean teacher is a devout Christian, and had invited us to join her for a Christmas Eve service at her church.  What followed was one of the bizarre church services I have ever attended. While I was raised Catholic and have attended an Episcopal Church in the past, I am not a regular attendee at any church.  I have, however, enjoyed attending Christmas church services in the past, and have even drawn spiritual sustenance from them.  I must admit not to having any such expectations in this case, but was convinced to join in order to hear a choir sing some Christmas carols.  Anyway, I figured, it wouldn’t last more than an hour or so.

We arrived to Christmas carols being sung over a speaker system at a volume one might expect at a Metallica concert.  Although the singing was excellent, I developed a headache over the next 20 minutes or so due to the volume.  Next, a very stern looking Korean pastor came to the pulpit, and proceeded to spend about 15 minutes shouting about Jesus in Korean.  I have no idea what he was saying, but his style reminded me of an American megachurch televangelist.  Needless to say, this was not my scene at all!  It was at this point that I began plotting my escape, but it was only the beginning.  Little did I know, things were about to take a turn for the humorous and absurd that would make me glad I stuck around.

Following the pastor’s sermon, a man with a microphone came to the stage in order to – and I can’t think of any better way to describe this – get the party started.  Festive music was played as he described some of the upcoming and performances, which went on for at least 2 more hours.  But before any of that could begin, there had to be a prize drawing.  This is Korea, after all!  Well, it turns out that the winner of the prize would be the person who had traveled the longest distance to be at church that evening.  The MC began asking people where they are from.  Being from the States, it was determined that I had traveled the farthest distance, and I was presented with a Pikachu plush toy for my efforts.  This is not joke.  The video evidence is below!

If I look bewildered and amused all at once, it’s because I am!

After this amusing diversion, a number of performances were put on by the members of the church.  They were quite similar to the sorts of things I’d seen at talent shows at Korean schools and camps: Kpop style dances, traditional dances, and of course, Christmas carols.  The strangest one was a skit where high school students dressed as Catholic priests started shaking their butts on stage towards the audience!  Again, I’m not sure of the plot, but the image is – for better or for worse – tattooed on my mind.

When the novelty wore off, I came up with the best excuse I could for us to escape:  we had to catch the last bus to Yeonggwang.  It’s my understanding that the performances went on well past midnight – by which time we were all fast asleep.  We awoke and, hooray, it was Christmas morning!  And what better way to celebrate than by making breakfast burritos after exchanging our gifts?  It was not long afterwards that we were off to Gwangju again for what would turn out to be a special, if unconventional, Christmas Day.

Our first stop was the Gwangju Culture and Art Center to take in an “amateur” performance of the Nutcracker.  At least, that is how the Gwangju city ballet described themselves – but they were anything but.  Again, this sort of thing is not normally my scene, but having seen a wonderful classical-popular music fusion concert by Philharmonix there a few weeks earlier, which included a superb classical arrangement of Sting’s “Englishman in New York,” I decided to keep an open mind.  I am so glad I did, because it was a wonderful performance, and given the lack of dialogue, the language barrier didn’t take away from the experience.  Best of all, the music truly put me into the Christmas spirit.

Naturally, the most logical place to go next for Christmas dinner was FIRST NEPAL!  This wonderful Indian/Nepalese restaurant downtown is where Emily and I had met by chance back in October.  As one of the biggest fans of Indian cuisine you will ever meet, it has been a staple of my weekends – and even some weekdays – ever since my arrival here in Korea.  I believe that they really went all out for Christmas, as the food tasted even better than usual.  Or maybe that was just the effects of that glass of Nepali whiskey . . .  In any case, what a meal!

Best Christmas dinner EVER!

And of course, it wouldn’t be a Korean Christmas if it weren’t for our next destination—NORAEBANG (Korean karaoke).  We proceeded to spend the next couple of hours belting out an eclectic mix of songs that included “Feliz Navidad,” U2’s “With or Without You,” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound.”  It was a typical shameless night of laughs and good fun which has become a staple pastime of ours here in Korea.  You may laugh, dear reader, but I dare you to come here for any length of time and not get hooked yourself!

Some of my last moments among the living, at Bulgapsa Temple, the Sunday before New Years’.

And that was all she wrote.  Just when it felt like Christmas was just getting started, the day was over, and I had to get the bus back to Nampyeong in order to be at work in the morning.  Our final English town classes of the semester took place on the 26th.  Although we had a long weekend in Busan planned for New Years’ Eve – which I was lucky to get a vacation day for – I wound up developing a horrible case of tonsillitis and watching several Jim Carrey movies in bed.  We did, however, get to visit one of my favorite places in Yeonggwang (and Jeollanamdo) before I got sick:  Bulgapsa Temple.  (More about it in a later post)

And so ended the 2018-2019 holiday season.  Sure, it had its ups and downs, but overall, I had a wonderful and memorable time.  If you come to Korea with an open mind ready to say YES, I’m sure you will too.

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