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Surviving the Holidays Away from Home

For a lot of expat English teachers, the year you come to Korea is the first time you’ve spent your holidays away from your friends and  family. Even if you haven’t lived at home in years, odds are you’ve made the trek home for Christmas (or Hannukah, or <insert December holiday here>). This first year being away from the familiar, and even worse! in a land where our version of Christmas isn’t understood, can be particularly lonely.

Christmas was always a big deal in my home – we weren’t really religious (though Mom made her annual trip to the Midnight Mass at the Catholic Church on the 24th), but Christmas was all about being with family, and eating ourselves into a food coma of magnificent proportions. Yet I’ve managed to have some of my best, most memorable Christmases right here in Ulsan – maybe exactly because you have to work harder to make it feel like a special day here.

Nothing says Christmas like a dog in a Santa hat!

It can be hard to understand Christmas in Korea. The stores deck their halls with lights and trees and baubles, and blare Christmas songs over the radio, yet most Koreans don’t actually celebrate the day. Most of the kids only know of Santa from their foreign English teachers. Christian Koreans consider Dec. 25th an important day, but celebrate it by being in church from dawn ’til dark, and have inherited none of the fun, pagan traditions that come with Western Christianity. Christmas is ultimately considered a “couples holiday” in which boyfriends and girlfriends exchange presents, and have romantic dates, and make singles feel lonely and left out (because Valentines Day, White Day and Peppero Day aren’t enough). And if parents do buy a gift for their kids, it’s usually on the Christmas Day shopping trip – no wrapping, no “under the tree” surprise, no waiting for days with eager anticipation of what is under that bow.

And this year, many teachers don’t even get a real holiday, as Christmas falls on a Sunday, and Korea still hasn’t adopted the practice of creating long weekends if a statutory holiday is on a weekend.

So, how do you make this holiday feel cheery and bright?

1. Decorate your apartment. The department stores all stock Christmas decorations now, and buying a string of lights and some tinsel can make a big difference, even if you live in a studio apartment the size of a shoebox. If you don’t want to bother with a tree, get creative!

Lights and baubles turn a tripod into a Christmas tree

2. Go Christmas Caroling. In the past, a certain (now retired) bar owner was known to dress up as Santa, and accompanied by elves and a good portion of the bar’s clientele, hit the walking street in Shinae singing Christmas songs. While this organized event no longer takes place, there’s no reason why you and your friends can’t hit the streets and bring good cheer. It was always quite popular with the Korean shoppers, as crowds gathered to listen and watch the crazy waygooks, and have their photos taken with Santa.

Santa and his Elves caroling in a dance club

3. Make your own dinner. While most teacher apartments don’t come equipped with an oven, you can improvise, and still create a feast with the two burners/one rice cooker you have. Turkey remains an expensive option, whether you buy from Costco to roast your own, or order a pre-cooked one. Why not buy the cheap and tasty roasted chickens that you can pick up from most of the large grocery stores, or if luck is with you, from the chicken truck on the street? Decide which of your friends has the biggest apartment, and convince them to host a potluck.

Carving the turkey

4. Go skiing/snowboarding. There are a few tour companies in Ulsan who run day trips to various ski resorts around Korea. What’s more Christmassy than being on a snow-covered ski slope? (Unless you’re from one of those upside-down countries where you spend Christmas on the beach…)

Night snowboarding on Christmas Eve

5. Treat yourself to an expensive dinner out. While you probably won’t be able to find turkey on the menu, you can splash out at one of Ulsan’s classy hotel restaurants or at the tip-top of the Hyundai or Lotte Department stores.

6. Spend Christmas Day making a kid feel special at the THOPE Christmas Party at the Ulsan Orphanage. Find the details in one of the many articles on this site.

7. Have a Skype dinner with your family. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, contacting loved ones on Christmas is no longer limited to an echoey, hollow-sounding, dropped long distance call on the phone. Now you can have an echoey, hollow-sounding, digitized, dropped long distance video chat! That’s what I call progress!

8. Now that I have 7, I feel I should round it out by going all the way up to 10… … … Ah HA! Secret Santa gift exchanges. If you have a group of friends you know well, toss everyone’s name in a hat, and draw lots for who is giving who a gift. Make sure to set a price limit so that you don’t have that embarassing moment where the person who brought a chocolate bar is given a diamond watch. Don’t tell each other who you’re buying for, and after the gifts are exchanged, see if you can guess who your Santa was. This works best if people know each other pretty well. If you’ve got a random group of people spending the day together, it might be better to just put all the presents in a pile, and play a game to see who gets which gift.

Who says Christmas trees have to be pine?

9. If you have access to even a toaster oven, bake up some Christmas cookies. You can get all of the ingredients for an easy shortbread or sugar cookie at the local marts, and the bigger shops, like Home Plus will even have Christmas shaped cookie cutters. It’s pretty amazing the kinds of things you can pull off with a glorified toaster, if you get creative.

10. Host a Christmas movie night. Watch all of the Christmas classics, like Holiday Inn, A Christmas Carol, A Charlie Brown Christmas or Love Actually. While I certainly wouldn’t condone doing something immoral and illegal like pirating movies, you are in the country with the fastest download speeds you can find…

Don’t spend your holiday moping around your apartment feeling sad and missing everyone back home. With a little effort on your part, you could end up having one of the most memorable Christmases of your life. Ho ho ho.

It's amazing how many people you can fit into a studio apartment if you really want to.

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