This year, I overcompensated for missing Thanksgiving at home by celebrating a double Thanksgiving abroad. Though we didn’t get the day off work, I spent the evening of Thanksgiving as close to America as I could get without leaving Seoul: on the Yongsan military base with a fellow Mac alum, currently working at the embassy on tour for the Foreign Service, and his family. (On the base it’s easy to forget you’re in one of East Asia’s metropolises, its tree lined streets and rows of ranch-style houses eerily resembling a midwestern neighborhood from the 1950’s.) With the cheerful family banter, a table full of home-cooked Thanksgiving fixings, and post-dinner word games it almost felt like home.
For Thanksgiving round two, I joined nearly two-dozen other teachers for a potluck-style Thanksgiving feast in Paju. And a feast it was: there were enough “grandma’s best casseroles,” “mom’s special stuffings,” and “secret recipe pies” to feed a small country, but we all stuffed our homesick stomachs with fourth and fifth helpings until the plates were clean and we were blissfully and sickeningly full. Not too shabby for my first Thanksgiving as an expat.
With Thanksgiving over, however, homesickness quickly set in. You see, growing up Thanksgiving always marked the beginning of my favorite time of year: the Christmas season, which, for my family, lasted all of December. Going to bed Thanksgiving night was almost more exciting than Christmas Eve because I knew the next morning, without fail, I would wake up to the sound of my mom’s favorite Christmas carols and a house in disarray; garlands, twinkly lights, and Santa Clauses replacing the books and picture frames that usually adorned our shelves. Of course, since I went out of state for college, this wasn’t my first Thanksgiving away from home, nor was it the first Christmas season I missed. In fact, every December for the past four years was full of too many papers and too little Christmas cheer. Nevertheless, the promise of returning to a home full of Christmas warmth and traditions always served as a light at the end of the finals tunnel.
This being my first Christmas away from home and my family, I started out just trying to ignore Christmas all together so I wouldn’t feel homesick. Eventually a handful of care packages with Christmas treats and decorations convinced me to do away with my Scrooge façade and I did what I could to embrace the season by going slightly Christmas crazy with my kindergarten. (Hey, there’s nothing quite like experiencing the magic of the Christmas season with children.) We turned our classroom into a little Christmas haven using construction paper, felt, tinsel, and glitter. We made snowmen, snowflakes, red and green paper chains, hand print wreaths, stockings, and Christmas stars. My favorite craft was probably our construction paper Santas that the kids called “Kimchi Santas” when they accidentally made them too skinny to be true cookie-fed Santas. In no time, my class full of divas mastered all the best carols, including “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” and “ Winter Wonderland,” and we spent an afternoon taking around homemade ornaments and caroling to the other kindergarten classes. And even though we were at school on Christmas Eve, our Christmas performance, visit from Santa, viewing of Frosty the Snowman, and gift exchange filled the day with plenty of Christmas spirit.
More than anything else, the thing that really got me over my holiday funk and through the holidays was Jerry’s month-long visit. After 4 months apart, his arrival in mid-December couldn’t have come soon enough or had better timing. For the two weeks leading up to our Christmas break in Cambodia, we put in plenty of time and miles on the subway, leisurely shopping, eating, dancing, and wandering our way through many of Seoul’s hotspots including Olympic Park, Itaewon, Hongdae, Myeongdong, and COEX. The whole while, we enjoyed the season Seoul-style eating hearty Korean food, Christmas shopping in bustling Namdaemun market, walking along the festooned Cheonggyecheon (the whole time criticizing the garish light displays adorning every surface), and, in keeping with tradition, taking in a local performance of the Nutcracker (which was unfortunately sub-par, but enjoyable nonetheless). We even brought some luxury and comfort to our holiday celebrations with a stay in the swanky W Hotel that's perched on a mountain overlooking the Han River here in Seoul and a black-tie dinner at Papa John's (yes, the American pizza place. But don't judge, it's quite the treat for those of us living abroad - homey comfort food like good ole American pizza can be hard to come by.)
All in all, not too shabby. Perhaps my 2010 holiday season didn’t quite follow tradition, but in the end, it was not only enjoyable but more than I could have ever asked for.