Makgeolli and crisps: my first Christmas in Korea

I am a youngest child, and will be the first to admit that we can be a very privileged and annoying species. This is more true at Christmastime than ever: we get esteemed jobs like putting the star on the Christmas tree, and picking the first present from under the tree on Christmas morning. But we wreck everyone’s heads by doing things like eating all the Christmas cheese well in advance of Christmas day, or plonking ourselves under the tree to feel the outline of the gifts and announce our guesses. I’ve also been known to hang the tacky cardboard decorations prominently on the tree just to get a rise out of everyone, and take upwards of 15 minutes on my Scrabble turn before asking ‘Is quzbayve a word’?

But this year I celebrated Christmas in Korea, and I didn’t have a chance to revert to my role as the annoying youngest child. 

As you can probably imagine, it was a very different Christmas. There were few decorations and little Christmas music in the shops, no throngs of people laden down with shopping bags. Nobody stocking up in the supermarket, as if for the apocalypse. Elsa and Anna dolls were abundant. Only the Nampo area, with its Christmas Tree Festival, was a worthy Grafton Street substitute (save for the obstacle course of selfie sticks). Honourable mentions also go to the massive tree in Shinsegae and the lights outside the Lotte Department Store in Seomyeon. 

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Top L-R: The lights outside the Lotte Department Store, and the Nampo area. Bottom L-R: The Christmas tree in Nampo, a busker in Nampo, and the big tree in Shinsegae

Throughout December I frequently came home from work to cards, letters and packages from friends and family back home, giving me that that warm and fuzzy Christmas feeling. I stuffed my face with delicious things from home, got a ‘Christmas tree’ (some kind of green mystery plant) and decked out my apartment.

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So much pooossshhhtt!

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(Mostly) homemade decorations in my apartment

When I talked about Christmas with my students, they would sigh and tell me they were ‘solo’, as if the festive season means nothing without an all important boyfriend to share it with. Aside from the 29% who are Christians, most Koreans see Christmas as celebration for couples. This is a bit mad because there is a day for couples every single month in Korea so hijacking Christmas seems a bit unnecessary.

I tried to generate some Christmas spirit at school, to show my students that you don’t need a boyfriend to enjoy it. With very limited supplies (namely paper, scissors and glue), they did a pretty good job turning the classroom into a Christmas zone. They made paper snowflakes, Christmas cards, paper chains, paper angels, angel tree decorations and a paper ‘Christmas tree’. I also used games and made activities around songs and video clips to fill up those last few weeks. With the godforsaken textbook finished (I never knew teachers hated that thing as much as students), the mood lifted and keeping students engaged was no longer a herculean task. Another endless source of enjoyment for the students was provided by a singing and dancing Santa hat that my friend Eoghan sent. 

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Christmas decorating at school

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The students’ paper angels

I only had Christmas day off school, which was perhaps just as well, as there was no time to hang around moping about being away from my family.

On Christmas Eve I headed out to my friend GaYoung in Gimhae. Her her neighbours were having a party so we joined in the fun for a while. We showed up wrapped in tinsel and wearing Santa hats, to discover it was more of a ‘We have no work tomorrow’ party than a Christmas party. They welcomed me warmly and with food, drink and questions about Ireland, as Koreans always do. So we drank some beer and ate some sponge cake, a Korean favourite at Christmastime. And what is any Korean celebration (or cinema trip) without the obligatory dried squid? I will eat almost anything to be polite, but I just couldn’t bring myself to eat dried squid on Christmas. On that particular test of my adaptability, I failed. There were some kids there too, and the parents were delighted with the opportunity to show off their children’s English talents. Never before have the words “I am seven years old” garnered as many “Oooh”s and “Ahhh”s.

Young and I then stayed up until 3am drinking delicious Korean rice wine called Makgeolli, eating King crisps and watching Elf.

On Christmas day we went on a trip to the nearby city of Changwon. On the bus an old lady asked Young which country I was from, even though I could understand her question. I was struck by how normal this day felt. In Changwon we strolled around from barbecue restaurant to lake to cafe. Couples and groups of friends were everywhere, enjoying the day off. The cinemas were booked out, the arcades were full of people and the noreabangs (Karaoke rooms) had queues waiting outside.

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Christmas in Gimhae and Changwon

When I got back to Busan I got on the wrong bus home and ended up in the hills behind my house, another pretty normal day in the life of a blundering foreigner in Korea. When I finally made it home I bought myself the most expensive and fancy coffee there ever was and drank it in front of my computer, chatting to my family as they ate their breakfast. Then we opened our presents together, only not really together. I ate the little Christmas pudding my mother had sent and reluctantly said goodnight, feeling aggrieved about having to sleep through most of Christmas in Ireland, real Christmas. When I woke up to go to work it was still Christmas day there, and we Skyped once more. My brother joked that we still managed to have the Christmas argument thousands of miles apart, as I complained that everyone was ignoring while they played ‘stupid Scrabble’ (obviously I said that in the heat of the moment and there is nothing stupid about Scrabble). 

So Christmas 2014 is over, but it feels like it didn’t really happen. I didn’t get to read shite cracker jokes or help my mother make bread sauce from a battered and food stained Darina Allen cookbook. I didn’t get to share in the marvel of my brother asking for seconds while everyone else is still helping themselves to gravy, or succumb to a food coma on the couch in front of the fire. But I will be in Korea next Christmas too, so I just have to get over it and add a few more items to my list of ‘Things That Are Christmas’. I’ll start with Makgeolli, barbecue restaurants and auld ones talking to me through my Korean friends. 

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About Clare Hartwieg

My name is Clare Hartwieg. I come from Ireland and I'm a GET (Guest English Teacher) at a middle school in South Korea. So far I love Korea. I love the fast pace of life, the food, the bright lights, the warm and generous people – I even love my job! Please follow my blog and share my posts if you are interested in hearing about my adventures in South Korea!
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