Probably the top advantage of living and working in a different country rather than simply visiting for a few weeks is that you get to experience the culture as fully as is possible for a foreigner. And in the case of a country where the people are as warm and friendly as in Korea, you’ll find yourself included even when you don’t really have a clue what’s going on.
Like Pepero Day, for example. I had no idea why colleagues and students alike kept giving me chocolate biscuits, but my ignorance of the occasion didn’t matter to them. In fact, they looked excited, thrilled even, to be including me.
Seollal’s a much more serious occasion, of course, but it kind of crept up on me in the same way, without me really knowing much about it. The children in hanboks were my first clue. Then I realised that that day off I’m getting on Monday isn’t the equivalent of our bank holidays – it’s more like the equivalent of Christmas Day. I made this discovery when I wandered into the office to see what all the girlish shrieking was about, and was presented with a gift bag. Turns out that we were all being given sexy stockings (I’ve know idea if that’s what they’re called. Do I strike you as the sort of person that wears anything that might even have the potential to be called stockings?), and the teachers were giggling over them as if they were at an Ann Summers party.
Out of context, you can imagine that you’d be fairly bewildered when your boss gives you stockings with no explanation. Oh – happy new year! she added hastily when she saw the familiar confused look on my face. You exchange gifts at Seollal? I asked in surprise. Yes, yes, is like Christmas! she said cheerfully, gesturing at the scene of stockings and wrapping paper in the office. But… you didn’t exchange gifts at Christmas! I pointed out. She shrugged. No, and Seollal is like Christmas. I’m not sure if I should be concerned that that sort of reply is starting to make sense to me, these days.
I then found that two beautiful white roses had been left anonymously on my desk. They were closely followed by a steady stream of children and teachers throughout the day, each bringing a gift like a small box of chocolates, a specially-wrapped cookie, a good luck charm, or some practical toiletry like cleansing foam or hand cream. One child brought me an origami-style paper basket with a few sweets inside it; another gave me a tiny phone charm wrapped in a carefully handwritten note. You certainly feel loved, in this job!
I didn’t know we were supposed to exchange gifts! I confided in a colleague as I guilty nibbled on a Guylian (the only chocolates I’ve seen in just about every single country I’ve been to, by the way!). She looked surprised. But you are foreigner, you are guest in our country! she exclaimed. You should not bring us gifts. That is our place! Fair enough, but I think I’ll try to come up with something cutesy to give them all on St. Patrick’s Day or something. I can’t cope with always being on the receiving end! Suggestions welcome, by the way.
Mind you, you wouldn’t believe how happy it makes them when I say “새해 복 많이 받으세요”, the new year blessing. You’d think I’d given them a huge food hamper or a new TV, they’re so delighted.
At lunch time, for the first time since I’ve been here, we did not have a bowl of rice and a bowl of soup each. Instead, we each had one big bowl of the traditional New Year’s Day food, tteokguk – a filling and delicious rice cake broth. And this leads me to share with you an upsetting discovery. Remember when I told you that I’d be prematurely turning 30 on New Year’s Day? Well, it turns out I got it wrong. I didn’t suddenly get older on January 1st. The New Year to which that article referred was, in fact, Seollal – and what happens is that you eat a bowl of that deceptively tasty soup and magically gain one year. I sat there, at the lunch table, gazing in devastation at my empty bowl. I hadn’t been 30, after all… and now I’d been tricked into it all the same. By a bowl of soup. This is terrible.
새해 복 많이 받으세요, many blessings in the new year, my arse. I’ve just turned 30 for the second time in not many more days, and I should only be 28. I must be the only person ever to have had two 30th birthdays and still have another one looming in the not-too-distant future.
Still, I won’t let it stop me from going out to ring in the new year this weekend. :)