From Korea with Love

"I carry your heart with me… always."


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Christmas in Korea

This year was the second time I spent the holiday season in Korea, and how I wish I had spent it in the Philippines instead. There’s nothing like Christmas in a country that celebrates the LONGEST Christmas (and New Year).

A few hours before Christmas Eve, I was still at work. I noticed that none of my colleagues were in a hurry to get home. It was Christmas Eve, but there were no Christmas lights flickering outside houses and buildings, no Christmas songs to be heard. The streets were quiet and dull. Malls closed early, as usual, so you wouldn’t see anyone rushing about to do last-minute Christmas shopping.

Earlier in class, I asked my students how they would celebrate Christmas, and it was a bit disappointing to hear answers such as: “I will play computer games; I will watch TV; I will sleep; I will do my homework; Nothing.” Another question I posed was, “Are you excited about Christmas?’ While most of the students answered, “Yes, I am” (or “Yes, I do” before I corrected them), there were but a few who said, “No, I’m not”. I wrote a sentence pattern on the board which read, “I’m excited about Christmas, because __________./ I’m not excited about Christmas, because __________.” Most of the answers were “because I will get a present; I will not go to school (It’s the beginning of winter vacation.); I will go to the amusement park/go shopping with Mom and Dad.” Those who said they’re not excited gave me either kunyang or “nothing special” for an answer. I couldn’t help but feel sad for my students who thought of Christmas as another ordinary day.

To get the children into the spirit of Christmas, I introduced Christmas vocabulary to them through a game. Some of the words were already familiar to them, and they could say them in English by looking at picture cards, but though they know the terms and their meanings, to them, they are JUST words… nothing special about a Christmas tree, a wreath, a candy cane, a star, the nativity, baby Jesus, Santa Claus, his elves, his reindeer, his sleigh.

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I was told that Christmas in Korea is usually celebrated by young couples. On December 25th, Tuesday, I went to the bar where my husband works and most of their customers were indeed young couples. In fact, it didn’t seem like Christmas. It   looked like Valentine’s Day. My husband and I were even joking about motels being full that night. It’s not that Korean families don’t celebrate Christmas. Some do, especially families with children. Their celebration, however, is not as extravagant as our celebration in the Philippines or in majority of Western countries. In South Korea, family gatherings on Christmas Eve are not commonly held at homes. Most families prefer to eat out and go shopping with their kids on Christmas Day. Parents buy their children new clothes or new toys. Some grandparents give money to the little ones just like on Chuseok or Seollal (Thanksgiving Day or New Year in Korea). Amusement parks are also one of the favorite destinations. Instead of turkey, ham, eggnog or pie, Koreans have Christmas cake. Most of the customers who came to the bar on Christmas were bringing beautifully decorated Christmas cakes, which explains why there was no cake left for me to buy in Paris Baguette.

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I was expecting heavy traffic on our way to Seoul on Christmas, but I was surprised that there weren’t a lot of cars. There were more cars on the way to the shopping center in Guri two days before the occasion. Families were doing their Christmas shopping a bit late, unlike in the Philippines where Christmas shopping begins as early as September. I don’t like spending the holiday season in Korea, but I like shopping here at this time of the year. There are a lot of brands on sale, and they are sold in unbelievably low prices. In fact, my husband, who detests shopping, bought more things than I did, including my present. He got me a pair of Daks leather gloves.

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In the Philippines, I used to get tons of presents from family and friends, as well as from work, but in Korea, a simple gift from my husband will suffice. The truth is, it’s not really the gift that matters, but knowing that you are not forgotten on a special day. I love giving gifts on Christmas, though, more than I love getting them. Seeing my loved ones smile as they open their presents gives me so much joy.

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I was expecting a different Christmas this year, but my husband had to go to work on the 25th. We couldn’t do anything special together on Christmas Eve, but we exchanged greetings through text messaging, and as he always does, he called a few minutes before midnight. I spent my Christmas Eve in the room, watching movies on my computer, answering my husband’s messages and my Mom’s calls. Talking to Mom and the rest of the family back home made me more nostalgic, and then hubby sent another message saying it was a “White Christmas”. That sad song kept reverberating in my head as I was looking out the window, watching the snow fall.

I didn’t want to welcome any negative feelings on Christmas, so I kept myself busy watching Grimm and NCIS. (They’re better than movies.) I fixed a cup of my favorite milk tea and ate a Christmas-tree-shaped cookie that I bought a few days ago and almost forgot to eat.

CHRISTMAS COOKIE

Two years ago, after our wedding in Korea, my husband and I decided to go to the Philippines to spend Christmas there.  It was not his first Christmas in the Philippines, but it was his first time to celebrate it the Filipino way. He had been looking forward to it. We also invited his relatives, who came to the Philippines with us, to come to our house and celebrate with my family. They enjoyed the food Mom cooked and the children were excited when I handed them treats in a stocking. After dinner, the children had to leave, because they were tired and sleepy. We were told that they are not used to staying up until midnight even on Christmas Eve.

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Some parents in Korea follow the tradition of stuffing their kids’ stockings with treats or putting presents under the Christmas tree for the children to open in the morning.

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My husband told me that when he was a little boy, his parents used to prepare presents for him and his brothers on Christmas, but when they no longer believed in Santa Halabeoji (Santa Claus is called ‘Grandfather Santa’ in Korea.), their parents stopped giving them gifts. That ended their celebration of Christmas. Until they became adults, Christmas passed just like any other day.

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When I asked my students what gifts they received on Christmas, I realized that money as Christmas present is quite common in Korea, especially from elders. Some of them got toys, clothes, candies and chocolates. Some got none. I was wrong to ask everybody in class what presents they got. I should have thought about those children whose parents were either too busy or not thoughtful enough to prepare a little something for their kids on Christmas. Isn’t Christmas one of the most awaited time of the year for children around the world? It broke my heart to see the sad little faces of those who said they didn’t get anything or do anything special on Christmas. I tried to console them by giving them candies which are actually given to “Superstars” (most active students of the day), but candies can do very little to comfort a disappointed child.

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One of my smartest students in class told me that he and his two “big sisters” were alone in the house on Christmas Eve, because his parents were working. Another student said she wished her Mom had not given her any gift. When I asked her what gift Mommy gave her, she said they are two Math workbooks, and Mom said she has to finish them in a month! How cruel can that be?

My husband said he used to be lonely on Christmas, when he wanted to go out with his friends, but they were all busy having dates with their girlfriends. He added that Christmas is “couple’s day” in Korea. Come on… there are too many couple’s days here, but only one Children’s Day and no Family Day at all? Christmas is for children, for families, for everybody, and it’s not supposed to be a typical day, it’s a day to be celebrated and shared and enjoyed, that’s why on the 25th, we say, “MERRY Christmas!”.


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Filipino Hospitality and Korean Thoughtfulness

A foreigner who has been to the Philippines and has visited a typical Filipino family will most probably agree that Filipinos are one of the most hospitable people in the world.

Filipinos like to make their guests “feel at home”. We serve them the best Filipino food we can cook; give them the coziest room in the house to sleep in; offer assistance or help every now and then.

Last week, one of my husband’s friends had a 5-day vacation in the Philippines. He has met my family a few times before, so when my Mom learned that he was coming to Pampanga (my hometown), the very first thing that she asked me was: “What is Chan’s favorite Filipino food?” Mom is known for being not only a great cook, but also for being the most accommodating person you will ever meet, so when she invited Chan to have dinner in the house, he got very excited and accepted the invitation right away.

Full house… and more guests coming… ^^

When a Filipino invites a guest for lunch or dinner, it is normal for the host to ask what kind of food the guest fancies. The host wants the guest to EAT and ENJOY, so the former prepares the food requested by the latter. During the meal, the host may even put the best piece of meat on the guest’s plate or refill the guest’s empty plate. To some foreigners, this may be a gracious act, but to some, this can be awkward. If a Filipino host keeps offering you food but you are too full that you can’t eat anymore, it would not be a sin if you refuse it or simply say, “No, thank you. I am full.” DO NOT LEAVE MOST OF THE FOOD ON YOUR PLATE UNEATEN. The host might think that you didn’t like the food. Also, leaving food on your plate may seem rude, especially to a Filipino family that’s not well off and had spent most of their month’s earning just to prepare a sumptuous meal for you.

My husband’s cousin and his cousin’s family and friend were invited to celebrate Christmas Eve with us two years ago. It was their first time to have dinner with a Filipino family and they enjoyed all the food Mommy prepared. After dinner, they had a few San Migs and a barbecue party with my uncles.

My Mom knows how Koreans love barbecue party and San Miguel beer, so she prepared different kinds of barbecue for Chan and had my cousin do the grilling. My brother-in-law bought some beer. My uncles got the “drinking place” ready. (Mom has this rule: NO DRINKING IN THE HOUSE, so drinking is usually done in the garage. Vehicles are moved to the garden; a table and some chairs are placed in the garage.)

The boys and their beer… ^^

The men in the family stayed home to welcome the guest and join him in drinking after dinner. In the Philippines, the entire family is involved in “entertaining” the guest.  If you happen to stay in a barrio (rural village), other male neighbors may also join the “drinking party“. Lucky for Chan, our family lives in a private subdivision, so he didn’t have to drink with strangers in the neighborhood. (Filipina women don’t usually join men in drinking. This is not the case in Korea.)

The “gangsters” playing tong-its with my “veteran” husband one lazy morning. ^^

When the men finished drinking and Chan called it a day, my brother-in-law offered to take him to the place where he was staying.

When Chan came back to Korea, he had only good things to say about how warmly he was received by my family although my husband and I were not there with him.

On the other hand, my family was impressed with our Korean friend’s thoughtfulness. When my cousin Bart (A.K.A. Jumong among Koreans because of his long hair) picked up Chan from the airport, Chan asked to be taken straight to my family’s house. We asked him to bring some Korean tea, medicine and other things for my family, which we didn’t expect that he would deliver right away. (Those were two big paper bags and he brought them all.^^) Aside from those, he brought his own “pasalubong” (homecoming gift) for Mom and the family: a cosmetic set for Mom and assorted chocolates and cookies for the family. When Mom met him by the door, he gave her the presents first and even used the word “pasalubong”. Most Koreans who have been to the Philippines know the word “pasalubong”. They also have this tradition of bringing some 선물 (gift) when they visit a family. When Chan came to my family’s house for dinner, he brought the biggest and the most expensive cake he found in Red Ribbon. My husband’s other friends, too, would always bring something for us every time they come to our house here in Korea. At first, I thought it was just my husband’s way of wooing me and my family, so he would bring presents for almost every member of the family when he came to visit me in the Philippines, but later on, when I have met his friends and other Koreans (like my adult ESL students), I realized how thoughtful Koreans truly are… and they just don’t give any gift… they give the BEST gift. If Filipinos don’t mind spending too much to prepare the best and the most appetizing dishes for our guest, Koreans don’t mind spending too much on a present.

Our friend Chan bonding with my sister and my brother-in-law… while eating his favorite yellow mangoes… ^^

Every time my husband and I have our vacation in the Philippines, my parents-in-law give us a load of things to bring for Mom and the family. (My husband always complains because we always have too many things to carry.) Two years ago, the in-laws asked us to bring a crate of dried persimmons, a box of sea laver and a bag of fresh chestnuts. (You can just imagine how heavy those chestnuts were! Good thing we didn’t have to pay for extra baggage.) Last year, they gave a box of expensive dried fish, another box of sea laver and kimchi. (Yup, my family is crazy about kimchi. ^^) Omonim was asking me to bring preserved squid and other salt-cured sea food, but hubby said they might not be allowed in the airport, so we didn’t bring them.

Dried persimmons are sold in winter season and are usually given as Seollal present in Korea
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On 추석 (Chuseok or Korean Thanksgiving Day) and 설날 (Seollal or Lunar New Year), my parents-in-law send gifts to my 형님’s (sister-in-law) family, too. In return, they are given pricey presents such as traditional Korean snacks or rice cakes, fresh Korean beef and boxes of fruit. You’ll be surprised how much Koreans are willing to spend for a Chuseok or a Seollal present.

Traditional Korean snack gift set

It’s going to be Chuseok in a few months, and I’m sure that the veranda in the house is going to be filled with gifts and goodies from family and friends, as well as from the companies we work for.

Some of the Seollal gift sets we received last year… ^^

As for me and my husband, it’s about time we save up for Chuseok and start thinking of what gifts to give his parents.