A student of  my in Korea.

Hans, one of my students in Puyo, South Korea.

One of my first Christmases away from my family was when I was teaching English in South Korea. It was 1997 and the Korean currency, the won, had fallen. I wasn’t making any money, but I was getting rich in experiences.

I was living on my own in Puyo, a rural town. I didn’t know many people and had been only there just over a month and a half. It was a lonely time and one I wouldn’t wish to relive but glad I went through it.

The lead-up to Christmas in Puyo wasn’t too bad. They didn’t go all out with decorations and blasting carols in shops. There were a few festive baubles hanging from a supermarket window but that was it. I also had to work during the day on Christmas Eve, which was different from what I was used to in Canada. However, this made things easier: I didn’t miss my family so much when it didn’t feel like Christmas.

But on Christmas Eve there was no escaping it. I love December 24 because it’s low-key and family-centred. No opening gifts, no gorging on a lavish feast – yet early enough that no feelings of sadness that Christmas was coming to an end. Christmas Eve is special to me because it’s the day before the flurry of activities. The 24th is for taking in everything and relaxing with loved ones.

We always head to church for the Christmas Eve service. Dad always makes us go super early so we have seats together. Then we sing carols and afterwards eat perogies, cabbage rolls and chicken wings and play board games.

I was missing this in Korea. But I could at least go to church. I did and sang many of the same Christmas hymns we sing in Canada. (Except I have trouble remembering lyrics so I sang the same line over and over again.)

After church I went out for a drink with my fellow teacher and roommate, Sun-yee. We had the best octopus ever that night too. It was so spicy I could hardly eat it but I kept putting it into my burning mouth. I went to bed trying not to think when I woke up it would be Christmas.

Christmas dawned and I slowly got up. Korea is 12 hours ahead of Nova Scotia so I called my parents on their Christmas Eve. It made me sad I wasn’t at home but I knew they were missing me too.

I had the day off from school and not much to do. I chose to go exploring. That’s what I did most weekends in Korea. I walked and walked and walked and walked. Covering many kilometres, discovering back roads leading to beautiful temples, acres of rice fields and a bridge over a quiet stream with a black goat tied under it. (There were no trolls).

I took lots of photos that day. None of anyone opening presents or stockings. I was OK — until I went into a favourite shop to get a treat. The store was playing Christmas music and the song bore a hole into my heart. I was going to cry if I didn’t get out of there.

I paid for my treat (probably a sweet bean bun) and left. When I called my parents again that evening it was their Christmas morning. I think I cried this time.

This would be the Christmas that lasted three days for me. The next morning, Boxing Day, was Christmas night at home. I didn’t feel too terrible that morning since it was back to work for me. Phew. Finally, something to take my mind off Christmas.