Friday, December 14, 2007

"It's Christmas in Korea – with all of the folks at home!"

Now that I’ve done a bit of a purge of some early December Christmas homesick sentimentality, I can be free to write a bit about what the Christmas season is like here in Korea so far.

As I said in my previous blog, I’m one of those people who mark things by the season. One of my favourite things about Christmas is being in places that I’m familiar with in another season – and seeing what the Christmas season does to change that place.

Usually, it’s as simple as how roof once warmed by the summer sun looks with a light blanket of snow. Coming to Korea in August, we had missed what was apparently the “heat wave”. Well, to us, the post heat wave time was hot enough. Our first day walking around Seoul with Bonnie and Ian could best be remembered as a day dealing more with humidity and jet-lag than actually seeing our surroundings.

It’s hard to imagine the shift. But coming from Calgary where we too have four seasons, I guess it’s not that hard to believe that it can be cold here too. Having spent nearly every weekend since we’ve been here exploring Seoul and surrounding area, it’s nice to have a bit of familiar context for how Christmas appears here.

This may be Asia, but Seoul is also a huge city with international flavour. It is probably safe to say that Seoul “does” Christmas maybe more than Calgary “does”, at least in some ways. I am speaking of course of the commercial aspect of the holiday. Okay – not just “commercial”, but the surface stuff – decking the halls and all that jazz. There’s a lot of money here: a lot to be spent and a lot to be made by the fortunate. The equals a lot of Christmas bling in every shop window and on every street corner.

This being my first time spending Christmas outside of North America, I was a little unsure how the Christmas season would play-out here. Before I left Calgary, I gave little more than a passing thought to what the Korean holiday season would be like. I figured that at best, there would be the obligatory mini-light displays and garish Santa statues in the subway stops. Oh, no – I’ve never been to New York at Christmas time or any other time for that matter. But I would imagine that aside from Macy’s Thanksgiving-Day Parade and Rockefeller Centre, Christmas in Seoul – at least in the busier shopping districts – is very much what it might be like in any huge city that celebrates the season.

Since we will be heading to Thailand for Christmas, we figured that we would do our best to celebrate the pre-Christmas season by checking out a few things. There’s more to come, but for now, in lazy point form, here’s part one in a selection of the Jing-a-ling-a-jing-jing that we’ve experienced in Korea so far…

1) Everland – A couple of weeks ago, Steph and I joined a few friends from school at South Korea’s largest theme-park. We figured that we owed ourselves a little R & R and decided to celebrate Shannon’s birthday with a trip to Everland. I read somewhere that the park opened in the ‘70s though it looks newer than that. Essentially, it is the Korean Disneyland, though having been to both the Florida and California Disney parks, I would say that there are huge differences.

Everland is no Disneyland, though there are similarities - seen in For all of my Disney nerd friends, I promise to go into full detail when I get home, but for now, just know that there is a ride called “Global Village” that is just as beautiful and frightening as “It’s a Small World”, an electric night parade that is just as electric as the Main Street Electrical Parade, and a plethora of shabby fast food stands – not to mention the rows upon rows of souvenir stands that look exactly like the Main Street Emporium, but sell “Aesop’s Village” characters that likely had no copyright at all.

What Everland had for us this year was a Christmas theme that was like The North Pole on Barry Bonds clear cream. It was crazy. I felt like Clark W. Griswold when we got to the gate and looked in to see a whole lotta Christmas stuff. I know that Christmas is about more than light on artificial trees, but who’s complaining? Sometimes you need a serious jolt of holiday to feel like a holiday is coming.

We had a blast and the night full of hanging-out with (relatively) new friends, riding some cool roller-coasters, and freezing our heinies off was capped-off by a truly amazing fireworks show, complete with a Santa Clause that spoke Korean and wore what was likely a 4000 volt suit – sucking enough energy with each “ho-ho” to power an entire North Korean village.

If you find yourself in South Korea, wanting to have a day and night of festive joy to kick-start your Christmas season, you could do worse than a day and night at Everland. The six of us were grinning like idiots and haven’t really stopped since. Though I wasn’t able to join my sister, her husband and my nephews in Disneyland this past October, Everland was the next best thing. Not a substitute or consolation– just something different. And it was nice to have the little buddies and their family in my thoughts.

Everland Hi-Lites? Being complete giddy twits with other full-grown adults while we watched the night parade go by, riding the “Eagle’s Fortress” – one of the highest-rated suspended roller-coasters in the world, and buying ridiculous souvenirs of our Everland trip on the way out of the park. My Sweet Carrot has become the stuff of legend.

With Christmas drawing near, I’ll be doing my best over the next week before we head to Thailand to comment on a few more Christmassy Korean things. Generally speaking, it does feel like Christmas here… as much as it can feel like Christmas when you’re away from home.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

December 8th 2007

Hello, there. So yeah... it's December 8th 2007 and while last year I was sitting in a lovely house I called home, just off 17th Avenue in Calgary, Alberta, wondering what next year would be like, I find myself a year later sitting in Korea, wondering what life is like at the place I called home a year ago.

It's December here in Korea, and yours truly is taking a Saturday Night time-out to recognize what that means to me, or what little it means, or how much – sometimes, it’s really hard to tell.

With Steph off to celebrate a friend’s birthday this evening, and me opting-out of that to celebrate shortbread cookies from home, here I sit with a small Christmas tree shining in the corner of our apartment, my 600+ Christmas songs on shuffle, baking from home thawing in the fridge, and some Cranberry tea steeping to my side. It’s all good. And with the recent weeks being as frantic as they have been, a night of Christmas relaxation is just what Santa Claus ordered.

We spent today wandering about Seoul looking for dress shirts for me to wear for online teaching over the next few weeks. We stopped by a store called “Bean Pole” which, to my friends back home, might sound like the ideal clothing store for a man of my build. But no – Koreans know Bean Pole as a rather up-scale outfitter which may be themed British (or early 19th Century America, it’s hard to tell) but is in actuality a Ralph Lauren style subsidiary of Samsung Corporation. Gwynyth Paltrow and the dude from Prison Break are their major sponsored celebrities so you see the billboards everywhere: Miss Paltrow and Mr. Miller, done-up in their finest Bean Pole finery.

I thought I’d give Bean Pole a whirl, but to no avail. Like most things I’ve tried on in Korea, the clothes were just a bit too short. Good thing too. Bean Pole can be a little hard on the pocket book. So, it was to the bargain bins for ol’ Bean Pole Davey. And guess what? Steph somehow convinced me to buy a thin black tie. Why? Because that’s what’s stylish in Korea right now. I’m sure that soon I’ll be fighting the urge to slow dance to “Love Bites”. Watchers of the latest online lessons are going to have to deal with retro Dave.

After that, it was a trip through extra crowded Myeong-Dong for a glimpse of those shoppers rushing home with their treasures. It was typical holiday madness, and I was thankful when Steph pulled me aside and without a word, lead me up a long flight of candle-lit stairs to a second and third floor coffee house where we could sit, sip coffee and look down at the muted hordes of shoppers below.

It might have been the first time in weeks that we had taken the time to just relax and just be us without a tight agenda of where to go. Now that I had my thin black tie, the day was really just about taking time – recognizing where we were, who we were there with and what we were doing. It too was good.

And now, while Steph is out with some friends, I thought I’d take the opportunity to blog a bit. I know that keeping this blog has been a lot more challenging that I had expected it would be. I remember reading a blog from a fellow Canadian in Korea when Steph and I were preparing for our trip. This guy updated every day. Granted, most of his blogs dealt with what he ate every day, but still – it was nice to get a sense of his daily news and life as a teacher here.

I realize that I haven’t been able to do that. And I wonder what the use would be to keep going when likely the only people who read this thing are my family members who I’ve been able to chat to on Skype anyway. Yet, here I am – typing-away, and realizing that there is so much I have missed writing about over the past two months. Yes – the work has been hard, but it’s also been full of good things that are plentiful enough to overwhelm the bad. I guess that’s how it is with most things here – most things in life. When I look around at some of the more unfortunate who pan-handle on the streets of Seoul, I realize how valuable it is to live a life where the good overwhelms the bad. It may seem like settling, but I’m realizing that it’s not.

I’ve also realized that some people have turned away from this blog because of my seemingly endless need to comment on the outward aspects of religion I encounter here almost every day. That’s cool. I get it. But somehow I can’t help myself. Yet, I am realizing that even in these encounters, the good can sometimes overwhelm the bad.

This afternoon on the train, after Steph and I had been accosted at COEX Mall by a Jehova’s witness mother and daughter tag-team, we had the extreme good fortune of running into Mr. An.

Mr. An reminded me of my Dad. He introduced himself at the Samseong platform and rode with us for about 15 minutes. He was well-spoken, generous and gracious. He was the kind of man who invited respect and then gave it back to you. He too was on his way from church – being a Seventh Day Adventist, he goes to Church on Saturdays. He took to time to ask about us, where we were from – what we were doing. He never once asked us to read from scripture or take a card. But he was kind enough to show us photos of himself receiving a military commendation at the age of 24 after the Korean War. He then spoke, when the situation seemed right, about why he believes what he believes, and he wondered aloud why not enough people treat each other fairly.

Between his true kindness the honest conversation we had between the three of us on a very crowded subway, I think I can honestly say that my little encounter with Mr. An might have been the single most moving experience I’ve had in a long time. I decided to tell him that he reminded me of my father. We got off the train and now I sit here by a Christmas tree in the apartment, wondering what Mr. An is going to be doing on Christmas Eve this year. If I weren’t going to Thailand, I think I’d be going on a Christmas Eve mission to find Mr. An and give him some of my mom’s shortbread form home. It’s the Macaulay Culkin in me.

But yeah, before I get too mushy…

Between the mad rush of life that seems to envelope everything in Seoul and surrounding area, I think the reason that I’ve been writing about religion so much in my blog is not just because of the in-your-face dogmatic ramblings of many, but because being here in Korea, being away from home, my senses to certain things are a bit more heightened than I thought they could ever be.

I remember reading another blogger’s thoughts about waking up in a foreign country and how when you do, you feel more invigorated than you ever have before. In the beginning, that is certainly true, but the same feeling continues to show-up from time to time. It’s like that new car smell – only different. You know what I’m saying.

But yeah – I wake up here still and I feel ready. Even things that scare the crap out of me seem to make more sense here. Perhaps the best way to explain it is to relate it to the way that I “forgive” a foreign language film. Watching Penelope Cruz in Volver a year ago was perhaps the perfect example. I understood through subtitles, though there was often an audience head obstructing my view of the words because they were near the bottom of the screen, and I had to keep jumping around in my seat to catch the meaning. Elements of magic realism in the story just seemed to make sense in a way because the voices were foreign. In a way, you just accept stuff more easily because it is all foreign, even if some of it seems to be so familiar. You sometimes forget where you are and other times, you area reminded with a certain smell or a certain alien feeling, gained simply because you are one.

Challenges seem endless, though I am starting to wrap my head around them in the only way I know how – by taking on more. For better or for worse, I’ve filled my weeks with perhaps more work than I need to (I say perhaps, Steph says “without question”) and the weeks are flying by. So here I find myself, on a cold day in South Korea – a country that judging by the summer heat should never get this frigid. This is perhaps the making of a new idiom, but a cold day in South Korea it is.

So much that we’ve seen over the past couple of months, but this is maybe the best way to deal with it – realize that my family reads this, and I need to get some thoughts out – to relax, and to give myself an excuse to enjoy Sandy’s shortbread and Mom’s gingerbread hot chocolate. Unlike Steph, I’m not watching my figure for Thailand.

Back to Christmas though. It’s coming.

I’ve always been one to mark things by seasons. Young adult relationships end, and my sentimental heart won’t be fully finished grieving them until a year has passed and I can look at the changing seasons and realize what a new fall might be without that person – perhaps what a new Christmas will be like without my Grandmother, who celebrated her own birthday on Christmas Eve – all Christmas Eve’s since her passing being a little more quiet with each year. But it takes a year to begin the letting-go. Something about me I’d be wont to change if I weren’t such an emotional masochist.

For Steph and I, this is our first Christmas without our families. For both of us, that means different things. I could go on and on about what I will be missing this Christmas, but for the sake of brevity, I will offer three suggestions. I realize that this is more for me that it is for any reader, but sometimes I just need to revel in sentiment. This is what I miss the most:

1) My other life. The kindest thing anyone has even told me at Christmas time came from another older man after seeing echo37’s first production of “It’s a Wonderful Life”. He was alone, and he walked up to me in the lobby after the show to shake my hand. All he said was: “You made my Christmas”, and he had been crying. Which pretty much set me off, but there it is. I was touched that someone could have been so touched by our simple little show.

It’s been two years since we last had the good fortune to share so directly in that Christmas story. One year since we celebrated in on film with friends in an old theatre back home, and three years since our first production of it. Suffice it to say that I can’t shake the story, its themes, or the sense of family its given to all those who were involved in it.

I miss it – and I miss it in the way you might miss a house that you’ve lived in your whole life. It took me only two years to become comfortable in the skin of George Bailey and after giving him back to the silver screen last year, I don’t feel embarrassed to admit that I want him back. How fortunate was I? I got to run through falling snow shouting “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old building and loan!” I got to be there as my dad shared a boxing day glass of red wine with one of his hockey heroes. And, I got to be a part of collective – a patchwork of little pieces of happiness that were collectively fortunate enough to survive friendships lost and friendships gained to be a memory I’ll take with me forever.

In my real life, I’m going to watch Zuzus and Tommys grow-up, but I’ll allow myself to hold onto the memories that were made when they were my children on stage. Freezing those memories and letting other ones go completely. It’s what I can do and what I have to. It might have been the only time in my life that I’ve felt as lucky as George. There was, in moments, a magic for me that was tangible. The kind of magic that romantics assign songs, tastes and smells to. An overwhelming sense of thankfulness that gives me hope in finding it again.

2) My family. Being here at Christmas time might be harder than I had thought it would be. That’s why we’re going to Thailand. Not only do I want to see what Christmas is like with white sand instead of snow, but I’m pretty sure that the distraction will be welcome. In some ways, being in Thailand will be like not having Christmas at all. You see, I’m getting all of my sentimentality out of my system tonight so that I can just let the season go without clinging too tightly to the fact that I am going to be away from my family for the first time.

I know, plenty of people “survive” Christmas without their families. Others have no families to miss. I’m reminded how lucky I am a couple of weeks ago and then again this week when packages from home arrive and I get to share my mother’s and my sister’s baking with the Korean staff at school. There’s nothing like a pair of Christmas socks to remind you how much your mom misses you.

But I’m going to miss my mom too – and my dad, and my aunt and cousin too. I will miss my sister and her new family – and my little buddies. When I think of missing the “Santa Claus Years” of my two nephews, I am reminded of the insanity of being here. Again, the good overwhelms the bad, but when I allow myself to miss my nephews and my sister, I get dangerously close to coming home. It’s easy to start asking yourself: “Why the hell am I here?” when you know that your decision to live abroad means that you don’t get to spend time with your family. All years are good ones, but those Santa Claus Years are maybe some of the best. My thoughts and a big part of my heart are with them.

3) Our traditions. Not being a traditionally religious guy, it would be no surprise to learn that Christmas for me was always more about maintaining the magic than it was about church – though certainly church had its place in my life too. I’m one of those Christmas Eve church guys. I know the real church people don’t like that, but I’m comfortable feeling good about sharing little Christmas Eve church action. You really can’t go wrong with candles, kids in reindeer sweaters and “Silent Night”.

My childhood traditions are the usual ones and nowhere near as eloquently rendered as those of Dylan Thomas: shopping at Canadian Tire with allowance money so I could get my dad some golf stuff and my uncle some fishing tackle, tobogganing at the school hill with my sister and coming home to defrost our toes on the kitchen heater with a mug of hot chocolate at the ready, and watching the yearly Christmas specials WHEN they aired because we didn’t have a VCR until later years. Face it – The Grinch was infinitely more awesome when CBC showed it with the intended commercial breaks. On DVD, I wonder why the screen goes black just as the mean one’s about to slide towards Whoville on his ramshackle sleigh.

But though I’ve sacrificed basic mathematic skills to allow more room for my brain to remember certain aspects of my childhood, I might be able to narrow-down my copious amounts of Christmas nostalgia to one favourite memory – luckily for me, it was one that repeated every year:

While some have fond memories of the fresh scent of thawing pine, we used to have one of those artificial trees with the color-coded branches. We packed it into the garage every year and we brought it out again the next year in early December. It was tradition for Dad and I to get the box with the tree and the other boxes with the ornaments. I was so excited to open each box and see last years ornaments still faithfully waiting for us. Fueled by Rankin-Bass Christmas specials like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, I was happy to let my childhood imagination sensibilities stick around a few more years so that I could continue to apply a primary school thought process to an approaching adolescent lifestyle.

It worked for me.

If I am not entirely solid in my religious beliefs, I am pretty sure that I do believe in the idea of the sacred. But being a liberal guy, I’m also happy to believe that EVERYONE has the power to apply a sense of divinity or sacredness to whatever we felt justified in. It’s like the force before the bastardization of midichlorians (that one’s for the geeks). To me, my Christmas memories are as divine as it gets – the way the air smelled when my Dad and I wrestled coloured lights into the tree out front on a night so cold the bulbs would burst if they touched the snow, the way a fairly shabby Christmas tree can look beautiful when you squint a give the light bulbs star lines, and the way that a kid can feel a sense of loss at the idea of growing up when he suddenly reaches a Christmas that seems too familiar to him – lacking in something new and uniquely magical.

But it’s that familiarity that I’ll miss this year. I already do. And I suppose what I’m struggling with most is the wanting to feel sentimental and the necessity not to. I’m doing “secret Santas” in all of my classes and they are pretty excited about it. Steph and I have each selected a class to teach “Jingle Bells” to and we’re excited about being Christmas nerds and parading our kids up and down the hallways to entertain the other classes on the last day before Christmas break. I’ll find a way to celebrate and I’m sure that the beaches of Thailand will help to sooth the situation.

Still, I have decided that I will allow myself to miss the Christmases that I knew while reminding myself that I would have missed them this year regardless of time and place because those Christmases are gone and I can’t get them back. I can only hope that in a few years, maybe as early as next, I’ll be in a room with friends and family valuing them in person, and missing my time in Korea while I eat shortbread cookies at home.

I feel safe in knowing that Bedford Falls, like home, is a place that once visited can always be returned to – even as it changes.