Sunday, December 19, 2010

Santa Claus is Coming?

It's interesting how we measure the year in seasons, marking the time with the changes in weather, the changes in wardrobe, and the changes in the world around us. This time of year usually has quite a marked and distinguished difference from every other season; it stands out from the rest of the year like gangbusters. The scent of pine greenery and flicker of lights everywhere you go, the catchy seasonal tunes that never seem to leave your head, the smell of pumpkin and allspice baking in the oven--I never realized before how all-encompassing it really is. That is, I never realized it until all of that became absent.

Sure, Koreans celebrate Christmas, but not nearly to the degree that Americans do. In some ways, it's a little bit refreshing that the weekend after Halloween doesn't cue all of the retail world to pitch into holiday-themed ad campaigns. In a way, it's a little bit nice that everyone isn't scurrying around like mad to accomplish all their holiday shopping. But, I must admit, my American-ness runs deep, and I kinda miss it, even some of the madness.

When you think about it, it's sort of amazing how an entire country as large as the United States embraces a little bit of magic all at once. Call it a consumer-driven holiday if you like, but I think that even if you're not religious, it's something much more than that. I think it's the something more that's what sustains it. I always feel such warmth and hope, renewed with each lit up tree I see, each plate of cookies I bake, and each carol I hear on the radio. It's a time when I feel constantly reminded of the beauty life can bring, and the love that is present in each breath, each blade of grass, and each raindrop (or snowflake).

Maybe it was my charmed childhood, in which my parents really made Christmas a time of magic, wonder, and love for all of us. I couldn't wait to bake pie with my mom and my sister, to wrap presents in secret from dad to mom and from mom to dad, to sing carols with the church choir and to smell the breakfast casserole baking in the oven on Christmas morning. As our little family grew up, I clung tightly to our family traditions. I helped dad put up the outdoor lights every year, making him promise to wait for my holiday break from college so that we could do it together. I demanded that everyone help decorate the tree on Christmas Eve, just as we had when we were kids. Everyone heaved deep sighs and asked "do we have to?"--it's a lot of work when you have an ornament from every year of your life, and then some! I even continued to write my Christmas Eve note to Santa Claus, leaving cookies and milk as well as a carrot for Rudolf, well into my college years. It's a little silly, I know, but I always loved seeing what "Santa" wrote in reply in the morning. Behind every one of these traditions was a little excitement for the joy that life can bring, and a lot of thanksgiving for that gift.

This holiday season, I am feeling grateful, indeed. Things are different here, to be sure, but I'm trying to find my own small glimpses of Christmas spirit where I can. Yesterday I went to Starbucks, (I know! In Korea!) which seems sort of ridiculous, but I knew they would be all decked out in holiday cheer. I ordered a peppermint Mocha with whipped cream and sat by the window, alone. I looked out to the busy street and listened to the Christmas music and just got quiet. I thought about the miles between me and my family this Christmas and felt truly grateful to have so much support and love across all those miles. It's not just the care packages of late, containing ingredients for holiday treats, a cookie press and all the recipes I have been missing. It's knowing that I can go wherever I will with my traveler's heart, I can do whatever I will with my scattered ambitions, and I will always have a family back home, missing me, but hoping that I'm having the time of my life. They will always encourage me to follow my crazy dreams. Reflecting on a gift like that, I feel all the warmth of the season right here with me, no matter the distance.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

aaaand I'm back!

I know I have been absent from this blog for nearly a month. Apologies. In the time since my last post:
  • I have Moved to a new apartment. See this link for my mailing address. Remember, anything bigger than a letter should go to my school, at this address. My old place was great, but the new one is even better! It is about the same size, but now with a better, more functional lay out. Moving was my original excuse for getting behind on the blog, but at this point I don't think I can play that card anymore. Ah, it's just life.
  • I have visited Babbie in Sokcho once again, in time to see the fall colors and hike ulsanbawi. Awesome. Simply awesome. Click the photo for more views from the hike, and the whole weekend. In addition to the hike, we ate some delicious food, walked all over Sokcho, drank some korean rice wine called Machholi, met up with Greg, had multiple good conversations over delicious cups of coffee, and just enjoyed each other's company. It was probably my best weekend away from Pohang yet. Relaxed but full of enjoyable company and beautiful scenery. The weather was perfect.
  • I have started taking Korean lessons! At school, every foreign teacher has a Korean counterpart. My partner, Kang Mi, has become a dear, loyal friend. She has adopted me somewhat and is endlessly supportive. She is always up for a little excitement, and we share some personality traits which make our out-of-school adventures a good time, every time. At any rate, I told her awhile ago that I would really like to learn some Korean, so that I can function a little easier and attempt some conversation with people I meet who aren't proficient in English. She talked to her sister, and now we have a trade going. Her sister, Sunny, is a mother and a housewife. She and one of Sunny's mom friends come to my house once or twice a week and give me one hour lessons. On Sunday, I babysit their children. It is delightful, and I am finally learning! I know the alphabet now, mostly. Little by little, I am learning vocabulary and conversation. cheon-cheon-hi! (slowly!)
  • I have started playing music with people! There is a local cover-band in Pohang that plays twice a month, at a bar about 5 minutes from my apartment. They are awesome and fun and their bass player, Rob, has become a loyal friend. He and I jam out once a week or so, and as it happens, the band is having me play with them on stage in a few weeks. Needless to say, I'm stoked. There is a possibility that I may become a "member" of this band when their guitar player and lead vocalist leaves in February, but whatever happens, I am content to be a guest musician for now. As an aside, the owner of this bar (called Live Story) is simply delightful and has come to treat me with the hospitality of an old friend every time I show up there. I'm feeling a community forming, and it's a great feeling.
  • I ate a delicious thanksgiving dinner, complete with pumpkin pie. Rob, who I mentioned, and Erin, (his girlfriend, also becoming a good friend to me) invited me over to have our own little ex-pat feast on the weekend of the holiday. I brought my friend Jack along. The dinner Erin prepared was delicious. For dessert, they let me use their oven to bake up a little taste of home. We counted our blessings over the meal, then played charades and trivia, talked for hours, and enjoyed the company and more good food. I was really missing my family that weekend, as holidays tend to trigger those emotions. They helped a lot. They are warm and opened, and I certainly counted them among my blessings this Thanksgiving.
  • I placed third in a local poetry slam. Yeah, this one is total left field. The slam started with an idea being thrown around in conversation, and then this awesomely nice guy named Sam got it together. It just happened this past Friday. It was great to see that kind of creativity come alive on stage, and some people were really incredible. Apparently this may become a monthly fixture at Live story. I would be delighted to see that happen, and I think it would motivate me to write more. Sam was even talking about getting a slam team together, as there are competitions in Seoul and Busan and other big cities. Who knows? Maybe just pipe dreams, but it could be pretty rad.
  • I was offered a little work at my favorite bar, Mindys'. This is yet to be seen, but I may begin helping out on busy nights from time to time. The girls from Mindy's were my first real friends in Pohang--you may remember Ruby and Cha-cha (Chan-Hee) from an earlier post about a hike in the north of Pohang. Well, I have since gotten to know Mindy a little as well. It might be obvious to point out, but she is the owner. She invited me out for a dinner with the girls and a few of their friends, and while there, asked me if I wanted to come work for her from time to time. Of course, I accepted. We shall see if this happens, but I think it will be a lot of fun if it does. Health code laws are pretty different in Korea, so when you go to a bar, the feeling is much more that you're hanging at someone's house, and the people working there are simply hosting you. What I mean is, the bar tenders often have a drink in hand themselves, or are eating a plate of food when it gets slow. They play cards and darts and pool with the patrons, enjoying themselves while still making sure to get everyone's drink orders and keeping things tidy. I already hang out at Mindy's once a week or so. To get paid for it, and be provided free drinks and food? Um, of course I'll accept that offer!

So this is getting lengthy, but the last thing I feel I must mention is the latest developments in the North/South Korea debacle. There have been some concerns voiced from people I love, which is reasonable. From what I have heard, American media is blowing it up quite a bit. Allow me to diffuse some of the worry. The word on it from most Koreans I talk to is the recent developments are more of the same. This attack was sad, and significant, but the thing is, these things have been happening off and on for the past 60 years since the violence of the Korean War ended in armistice. Koreans mostly say it's a lot of posturing and asserting of power that will likely amount to nothing. People also say that the submarine incident of last March was much more significant, as 46 sailors died. In this recent case, Lee Myoung Bak (our prez), responded calmly and coolly, but with appropriate sternness. He asserted that he wants to keep peace and does not want to do anything that would create further violence. He is even saying now that reunification will happen.

People also think that North Korea really doesn't want a war. The common opinion is that they would be completely decimated in a matter of weeks, as all of the world powers are supporting South Korea for the most part on this, and the current state of their economy is pretty bleak. True, China is supporting both Koreas, but their statement in this case is that they hope both Koreas will find a way to work towards peace. Another Korean I talked to thinks that this particular incident is an attempt at a show of military prowess on the part of Kim Jong Un, the successor to Kim Jong Il. People of that opinion think that he is trying to prove to North Koreans that he is as powerful, fearless, and bold as his father.

Who knows, but the bottom line is, I'm safe! Where I live is far from the recent action, and it is incredibly unlikely that anywhere else in Korea will be attacked. The place that was hit has a long history of conflict, even after the Korean war. It's a small fishing island on the north east side of the country that I've never been to nor do I have any reason to go there. Rest assured!

Babbie wrote a recent post which is really informed, and has more information than what I wrote here. She lives 30 minutes from the border, which is significant.

Thanks to everyone who has been following me here, I think I'm back on the wagon. I'm really enjoying my life in Korea, but I love hearing from you in any way, letters, emails, and just little facebook messages are quite nice. I must admit, the holiday season makes for some pangs of homesickness.

All the best!