My work Christmas dinner was on Thursday night.
I must admit, this was the first time since I’ve been here that I worried I might start to feel a little homesick. I was exhausted after work thanks to a late night the night before, so I went to take a nap on the school sick bay bed between finishing work and leaving for the restaurant. As I lay there, I heard a variety of sounds drifting in through the door and echoing in the corridors – sounds that are at the same time foreign and newly familiar. Conversations in Korean between my colleagues. The office radio playing Korean ballads. The secretary’s phone ringing and the photocopier whirring. A mobile shop in the street, with the driver’s voice blasting out information about his wares via a megaphone.
In a semi-awake state, I was transported back to Christmas Past, with memories of childhood winter days spent putting up the tree with The Sister and our mum, going to the school Christmas party, sneaking downstairs on Christmas morning to see if Santa had been. Memories of more recent years, decorating the showroom at work and eating Celebrations with Zed, salivating over the Crawfordsburn menu in the run-up to the work Christmas dinner, laughing with my colleagues in the back of He Who Brought The Coffee’s van as he drove us to the restaurant through the snow and ice. I felt a twinge of nostalgia, and wondered if I was going to be horribly sad as I tried to enjoy my favourite time of year in a country where everything is so completely different.
Then my boss came to wake me up to tell me we were leaving, and we piled into cars to drive to the restaurant. We had a buffet meal at a fabulous restaurant called Steam Pot, where their speciality is shabu-shabu – a Japanese hotpot, where you cook raw meat and fish by swishing it around in a bubbling soup cauldron in the middle of your table. There was a buffet, too, with sushi and a variety of hot dishes. We ate until we could hardly move, and the air was filled with the sound of chatter and laughter. The principal made a speech, and OK, I couldn’t understand much of it, but it was a familiar enough end-of-year Christmas message and toast. After eating, we went to a bar and continued the celebrations for a while.
It even started to snow while we were there. Terri and I, excited, had to go outside to see the first flurry, and as we were taking pictures, a guy who possibly thought we were insane gave us a can of hot coffee each! I’ve never heard of such a thing before, but as we stood there in the snow, with the bright lights of the city twinkling around us, sipping our coffee and preparing to return indoors to our friends, I suddenly realised that it’s not all that different here.
Last Christmas, I was isolated and homesick. The only other person in my life saw Christmas as more of an annoyance than the magical time of love and togetherness that it is to me. I tried to make it feel the same by spending time at the beautiful Christmas market and putting a little tree in the corner of the apartment, but as I sat there alone all through Christmas morning because I had no one to go out with me to the morning celebrations in the snowy town square, imagining my family and friends at home with all the Christmas traditions that I love so much, I cried. I pretended to be having a wonderful time so that no one would worry about me or feel sorry for me, but I’ve never wanted anything more than I wanted to be with my family that day.
This Christmas, things are different. I talk to my family regularly, and feel like I’m still involved in their lives. I have a job that I love more than I’ve loved any other job in my life. I have dozens of new friends, and a couple of fairly close ones. I hardly ever sit in the apartment by myself, and I spend more time laughing and talking than anything else. Sure, I have the odd moment of culture shock and the occasional pang of desire to be somewhere more familiar, but they are fleeting and infrequent rather than lingering and painful. It’s hard to feel sad or lonely when you get a big bear hug from a friend who hasn’t seen you for a week, or when you’re singing Christmas songs in a noraebang with a group of cheerful, smiling, laughing people, or when you’re teaching a group of excited 6-year-olds to sing Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, and baking Christmas cookies with them.
This Christmas is different from last Christmas, and it’s proving to me that being away from home at this time of year doesn’t need to be lonely or sad. It’s different… but in so many ways, it’s exactly the same.