Letter from Korea, Christmas 2010

Somewhere in Gyeonggi-do,
South Korea
9/1/2011

Dear Ireland

Christmas! Yes, Christmas. It was an interesting one to say the least. It was a busy Christmas too, but not in the usual sense because of the news delivered to me on Christmas Eve that I would be spending a week literally in lock up. I had been nominated by the powers that be to be one of the writers for a kind of mid-way entry exam to the university I work at. That’s why my Chirstmas post is coming well into 2011, and not while the tinsel still holds some facet of festive cheer. More about this later. As I said, Christmas came and went, abruptly, but not without character.

Since 2005, when I first came here, Christmas in Korea has been gradually gaining in significance. I am not really sure why to be honest though. Maybe it’s because the kids have eventually turned around and said, well it’s all well and good being sent to an English school and being filled to the brim full of Santa and Rudolph stories, but enough is enough, it’s time Santa made a stopover in Korea; how he gets down the chimney in the Remian and Lotte Castle twenty-five storey apartment buildings is a mystery beyond my powers of comprehension.

Official NORAD (whatever the jaysus that means) Santa Tracker! Truly magical!

Incidentally whilst on the subject of Santa, and completely off the point of my Christmas in Korea, on Christmas Eve I came across a website that provided a Santa tracker, which I thought was incredible but not many shared the same enthusiasm for it. When I first checked it, Old Saint Nick had had his wicked way with South Korea and was in Pyongyang. I wonder how Santa got along there and whether or not it was a busy stopover. Did Santa have to clear his identity and purpose of visit with whichever department is responsible for foreign visits in North Korea. Where did he apply for initial visa? Perhaps there is a consulate of the DPRK in the North Pole. The South Korean government can’t have been too happy with him crossing the DMZ without permission, or did he come from Japan? This can’t have curried too much favour with overly nationalist elements in either North or South Korea. I also wonder what the kids asked for; probably eternal happiness, a bunch of strippers and a container full of Crystal Champagne for Kim Jung-un.

Anywhere, where was I? Oh yes, Christmas in Korea.

The increasing significance of Christmas in Korea is a phenomenon I’m not completely sold on just yet. Mostly, the increased popularity of this special time of year revolves around the commercial aspects. Yet, even so, while supermarkets advertise Christmas deals and have Christmas décor, it lacks a certain amount, if not all, of the buzz you feel when doing Christmas shopping back in Ireland. The buzz of course can be felt when, despite half the population of the country doing their shopping in the one shopping centre (yes, I’m talking about Blanchardstown) people still try to nip down to pick up a few things quickly, and happily idle there way through nine hours of traffic, then buy half the shopping centre all with a smile from ear to ear stretched across their faces. I’ve yet to experience this festive cheer in Korea.

And even if this phenomenon comes to Korea, which it may very well do (I would rather go to the Blanch Centre if it does, and that’s not because it’s in Ireland; if there is ever a competition for the ‘busiest country in the world’, Korea has already won it), Korea, I believe, will never be able to emulate the atmosphere of the pub on Christmas eve. This is a feeling, an emotion, an experience that is only possible at home, wherever home may be.

I suppose then by saying this, I don’t really consider Korea my home despite my commitments to it, which isn’t true. Korea is my home and I am happy living here despite the ups and downs it brings. If I said Ireland didn’t bring ups and downs then that would be a lie. What I do think is that Christmas is not a Korean holiday and as hard as Koreans may try to emulate the festive cheer, it can’t compare with home. The same can equally be said of Chuseok or Korean New Year; there is no comparison in Ireland at the same time of year, but they all carry that shared festive feeling only experienced at their respective times of year.

This year, it must be said, was my most festive Christmas I’ve had in Korea, and one that resembled a proper holiday. We had a few Christmas get-togethers in the run up, such as our friend Suni’s vegetarian Christmas party, and then the IAK’s Christmas fundraiser which was organized; that was a roaring success in my opinion with the crowd one step short of hanging from the rafters at the end of the night! To wrap it all off, we went to Jumunjin to spend a few relaxing days with themselves (i.e. the mother and father in-law, whose names will remain a secret) on St Stephen’s Day.

Shower anyone? - Jumunjin, St. Stephen's Day 2010

 

Enjoying the sea air - Jumunjin, St. Stephen's Day 2010

Litter - Jumunjin, St. Stephen's Day 2010

Stop! Jumunjin, St. Stephen's Day 2010

Open - Jumunjin, St. Stephen's Day 2010

But, Korea as a Christmas country, well it just really isn’t the same. For one thing, I dislike the growing tradition of going to the pub for Christmas dinner and then drinking your brains out like a normal Saturday night. Perhaps it’s just an Irish thing, but the pub should be closed on Christmas Day, especially ones run by westerners in Korea. People should get together and try to scrape together some semblance of a Christmas dinner, and sit around ideally with a hangover from the night before, and just enjoy the company.

My first Christmas in Korea was a bit like that; we got pissed the night before in my apartment and the next day we all went out to a friend’s place and they had prepared a massive spread with veggies and roast chicken, and a fair amount of wine too, all topped off with hangovers so violent most of us could hardly finish a plate of food.

That was the only time I’ve had “Christmas Dinner” in Korea, but we’re planning one for next year so hopefully everything will work out. Every other year in Korea, well I’ve kind of just ignored it or not really done anything Christmassy, and the lack of effort or avoidance has kind of helped me deal with a bit better.

This year, we woke up and got onto skype to catch up with the clan coming back from the pub on Christmas Eve, needless to say there was little coherent communication. I did manage to have a wee chat with a few of the lads, and then we sat around all day being lazy. I also spoke with my youngest brother who was in Eindhoven for work, and was sitting up doing something similar to ourselves, catching up with the craic whilst miles away from home. We called back on skype at around seven when they were all getting out of bed and had a present opening session. Then we went for dinner in a nice Italian place with a decent wine list, and to the pub for a few pints. We were home in bed before the folks back in Ireland had the turkey in the oven.

*

 

As I said at the start of this post, I’m writing this post a little later than expected. One of the reasons is because, as I said, I’m in lockup. There other significant reason is that I didn’t want to write a Christmas post until our Christmas presents actually arrived! They did not arrive before Christmas as we had hoped, but they did arrive on New Year’s Eve.

But, as you may not have heard, I took herself to Japan for New Year’s as her Christmas present, so we were not fortunate enough to be at home when our pressies eventually did turn up. So, when we got back from Japan we opened up our parcels, and then I packed to go into lock up, from where I’m writing this now.

The trip to Japan was my own little coup in terms of herself thinking that she has to arrange everything. Of course when I gave her the tickets, I had thought that she would have enough time to plan our by minute-by-minute schedule (this would be a more relaxed schedule than the usual second-by-second schedule herself is fond of). My luck however had run out with managing to successfully maintain the secret up until Christmas Day, and herself fell into a massive dose of the flu, with a high temperature and aches and pains all over; an adversity to over-the-counter medicine didn’t help things either, but we pulled through and she thanked me gratefully that I didn’t suggest that we not go to Japan on the morning of the flight; she said she would have acquiesced.

We went to Osaka in Japan for the New Year, and unfortunately someone didn’t actually investigate the extent to which the Japanese celebrate New Year. It certainly takes more precedence than it does in Korea, where all that happens is a day off if it’s not on the weekend.

A large portion of the city was closed, as were many major attractions, also the shops opened late and we were left to wander around the eerily quiet shopping areas with closed shutters waiting for something to happen. By the time we had spent a fortune in two larger stores most businesses had opened and the streets had taken on a more respectable looking form, people in droves duffled up in big coats and scarves and streaming in rows or flows, much like the car traffic of a street, everyone walking on the left hand side; of course the bloody tourists, myself and herself, were the exception. We eventually got the hang of things.

 

It’s quite an interesting city, but I will spare you the usual it’s sooo different from Korea story, because it is different, it’s a different country so it’s to be expected. And those stories are pointless anyway. There are a number of reasons why it’s different but there are an incredible amount of similarities too if you take the time to sit back and analyse it from a broader perspective.

 

While we spent a day shopping, which you can’t avoid in Osaka as there are good shops everywhere, we also spent a day sightseeing. Osaka is a real feast for the eyes. I got the impression that the city was quite rectangular shaped, in terms of its architecture, but it was also so unsymmetrical that increased the visual appeal. The maze of side-streets, shopping plazas, and bars and restaurants which would hardly fit five people really obscure any attempt at successfully navigating the town in your first visit, which this certainly felt like.

I had been to Osaka before, almost six years ago on an overnight visa-run with my first job in Korea, but this was a real tourist trip, a more realistic exploration deep into the secret lanes of millions of izakaya, and all the time dodging from left to right as another cyclist flies by to the gentle tinkle of their bicycle bell. 

Our sight-seeing plan was unfortunately restricted by New Year’s Day. We had planned a day trip to Kyoto, and we had half wanted to visit a few museums, however they were all closed until the day we left or the day after. We made it to Osaka Castle which is an impressive looking medieval structure surrounded by a moat in the middle of modern metropolis. We snaked our way through to the high white building, and I got quite excited as I’d never been inside anything like what was in front of me before.

 

Unfortunately, the whole structure has been gutted and remodeled as a modern display case of the castle through the ages. There are some nice exhibits though, notably the samurai helmets and some diorama of the castle’s previous layout. The original interior had been relocated to the Osaka Museum of History, which was closed. I suppose the likely reason, and I can understand why this was done, was to preserve the building and its furnishings. It was a very busy place, and it was a tight squeeze at times trying to get up and down stairs and to take a proper look at some of the exhibits. If the original décor was in place, I don’t doubt it would have been damaged indirectly from the scores of people passing through by the minute. All I wish is that the main museum was open and that I had actually read about the castle in the first place (note: I didn’t even know Osaka had a castle until I was sitting in the plane flicking through the ANA magazine).

 

When we came back from Osaka, Christmas, for us, had finally arrived in Korea. It was a white Christmas; white because the snow which had fallen in droves the week before had as of yet still to melt. Our second Christmas didn’t last long. The next day I came here, some mountain forest where my employers have another campus for graduate students. My phone has been taken away, and I don’t have access to my email. The internet is available, but there are assistants who kindly keep an eye over our shoulders to be sure we don’t check, or more importantly email the answers of the test to the candidates who are patiently waiting for us to get in touch with them… or something like that.

It’s a serious operation; we’ve been fed and watered well, not to mention filled with drink at night, and right now on the ground floor a printer is shooting off piles of exams for the poor misfortunates who are reduced to taking this test due to the excessively competitive nature of Korea’s education system. This competitiveness seeps into all aspects of a students future prospects; employment, social lives, and even family life can all be determined by your education, which is essentially the university you graduate from and the grades you receive.

Anyway…I’m hoping that I can enjoy a little free time when I’m released on Monday to enjoy the few Christmas presents that made it over, and remember to send on the rest of the ones that I never sent in the first place!

Merry Christmas from Korea, and a very healthy, prosperous, and fulfilling 2011 to everyone who reads this!

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