A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
In most Western countries, Christmas is a time to gather ‘round the Christmas tree with your family to exchange gifts, do strange little rituals like make things explode, wear silly hats and listen to Bing Cosby’s Christmas album 900 times in a row, and eat an obscene amount of food.
In Korea, Christmas is a couple’s holiday. I’m not entirely sure why. I guess Koreans already have two big family holidays – Seollal and Chuseok – which go for several days each. That’s quite a lot of mandated family-togetherness and commercialism. Plus all those Christmas lights are quite romantic to walk under. The Christmas carol I heard the most during December? Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Every. Single. Day. But the worst thing about Christmas was the couples. I walked into a coffee shop for a hot chocolate and felt like I was crashing 20 intimate dates at once. I had to walk along the Chunggyecheon Stream on my way to meet friends and constantly dodged couples taking s l o w romantic strolls, taking cute selfies, gazing at the lights…
This was my first holiday season celebrated away from my adoptive family. I caught a bus up to Seoul with no plans for Christmas except to see Sister 3 for her birthday, and to celebrate New Years with Umma and Appa – Korean style.
An adoptee friend invited me to help cook food for homeless people in Seoul on Christmas Eve. She and another adoptee made kimbap last year.
The cooking was hosted by a Korean American adoptee who grew up cooking Mexican food in his family and now runs a restaurant in Seoul. Lucky me got to eat his homemade Mexican food for dinner.
We set up a sort of burrito-making station with marinated pulled pork, scrambled egg, fried kimchi, rice and flour tortillas.
80 burritos later, we piled them into a big bag and headed towards Seoul Station where we met another adoptee with boxes of hot packs.
A big group of ajeoshis in cheap padded jackets and tatty beanies stood outside one of the exits. There were so many that I didn’t believe they were homeless at first, until I saw the remains of cheap instant noodles and cardboard boxes scattered along a railing. When they realised we had food, they called over their friends. Soon, our little group was surrounded by an even bigger group of very hungry, very cold people.
“There’s more downstairs,” someone said.
Downstairs, a long line of homeless people snaked around a corner. A church group were handing out big mandu dumplings.
I’d never seen so many homeless people in my life. Mostly old men, but there were a few old ladies too.
Then we walked around the corner to see two long rows of sleeping bags lined down a corridor.
They’d built cardboard barriers to shield themselves from the cold winter winds rushing through the corridor. A man reached into my bag of burritos.
“Two, two,” he said.
I nearly said “no, I need to give that to someone else”, but stopped and let him take them.
I noticed some of the homeless people giving their food to others.
The burritos were gone within minutes.
“I would’ve made more if I had known there would be so many people here,” sighed the chef.
We handed everything out and went to get dinner.
“Do you feel like you did something good tonight?” someone asked.
“Yes…” I said, rattled, “but… there were so many.”
I popped on a Santa hat and met my friends Tim and Nathan at Seoul City Hall. Tim had gone all out and worn a full Santa beard.
It was strange walking around Seoul with so many shops and restaurants still open, and the usual crowd of Seoulites in the city on Christmas Day. It was even stranger huddling around a steaming shabu shabu pot, instead of eating seafood and roast pork and passing out in front of the nearest air conditioner.
Nathan suggested that we go ice skating at the makeshift rink outside City Hall.
After a memorable, terrifying and fun trip to the local ice skating rink with my Korean students, I realised that I’m pretty decent at ice skating. Decent for someone with no coordination and has only skated once in their life, that is.
Ice skating on Christmas Day doesn’t come around often for this Aussie.
Kids gasped and pointed at Tim’s glorious beard.
“Santa halabeoji!” they whispered to each other. (Santa grandfather!)
“Santa, konnichiwa!” Japanese tourists greeted him.
The crowd was released onto the ice. I cautiously glided around – and giggled at – the carnage that spilled out in front of me. Kids spun like starfish flat across the ice. High schoolers in big groups and shrieked and flailed about whenever they wobbled, causing everyone to tumble down. Couples on dates attempting to be cool and impress each other were swept up in the surrounded madness. People who didn’t know how to stop just simply crashed into the wall or grabbed onto other people, who would scream in surprise and fall over. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.
“Santa! Give me a present!” said a little girl skating beside Tim.
“Give me a present too!” said her Mum.
“I don’t have presents.”
Tired and a bit bruised, I headed back to KoRoot and bumped into Hana, an adoptee from Melbourne. She was on her way to a Christmas party. I wasn’t really in the mood for a party, but she won me over by mentioning that there would be food.
Hana took me to a cute little guesthouse in the artsy Seocheongdo neighbourhood. The three chatty sisters who ran the guesthouse had cooked a huge spread of food and even bought some fancy wine for our little party.
After the buffet came several dishes of eggy baked quiche. After the quiche came garlic fried chicken. After the fried chicken came cake.
Sitting around a table with strangers from Korea, Hong Kong and Japan, listening to a Christmas Carols CD and eating everything in sight felt like the most Christmassy thing I’d done all day.
The sisters decided to play games like Hangman and Charades. With prizes! I was determined to win. As determined as, say, an 8-year-old Korean kid faced with a competition in English class and promises of stickers. Then there was a gift exchange. In the end, I came away with:
Merry Christmas to me!
It was Sister 3’s birthday, so I took her out to dinner. We ended up eating three meals.
Pork ribs on cheese. Two of my favourite foods, together at last!
Halfway through our meal, God came into the restaurant.
Or maybe it was a ghost. Or some other wise mystical old man. This strange fellow wore a cape bearing the Korean beer company “Hite”. A perky girl in a short skirt accompanied him and came over to our table with a tablet. We were instructed to play a game. Sister 3 and I wiped out greasy fingers and bashed some animated snowflakes. The girl clapped and announced that we were winners.
Selfie sticks are everywhere in Korea. They’re only 5,000 won and I guarantee that you will see at least one at any tourist destination. I’d been wondering whether I should buy one or not (“they look stupid” “but I could make obnoxious travel videos and take big group photos so people think I’m popular!”). So I was stoked to win this embarrassing but useful gadget FOR FREE.
Dinner 2: Witch’s Kitchen
Laser lights, smoke, EDM and a witch mannequin overseeing a table of novelty headpieces greeted us to this… place. I’m not sure whether it was a bar, restaurant, club, or all of the above. We put some silly things on our heads, sat down and ordered cocktails, which came in IV bags. Dinner 2 was fried chicken and fried rice. Even more of my favourite foods! Sister 3 has great taste.
It seemed like the perfect opportunity to road test my new selfie stick.
“Er… how do I use this?”
“Here, I’ll help you.”
Sister 3 turned a knob and the entire thing fell apart in her hands.
“Oh my god! I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay! I’ll fix it!” I said, grabbing the little screws that had scattered across the table.
It became quickly apparent that this selfie stick given to me for free from a beer company may not have been of high quality.
Dinner 3: Makkeoli bar
Makkeoli is a traditional Korean alcoholic beverage made from rice and wheat. A popular food accompaniment to makkeoli is pajeon, a sort of delicious fried pancake with vegetables and meat. We ordered a big plate of bulgogi pajeon, which tasted like a big flat juicy dumpling.
It was Friday night in Gangnam at around 11 o’clock. The night was young! It was time to…
“I’m so full,” I whimpered.
“I ate too much,” groaned Sister 3. “I think we should go home.”
New Years Eve
New Years Eve is the time to stay up late, get outrageously drunk with your friends and watch fireworks. Umma’s preferred New Years party is to go to bed, get up early and watch the first sunrise of the New Year. I thought that sounded much nicer than ruining my liver and embarrassing myself, so I joined her in Geojedo.
On New Years Eve, Umma decided to show me around her hometown on nearby Tongyeong Island.
We went up Mireuksan Mountain…
… played around the Dongpirang Mural village…
… and looked around Sebyeonggwan Hall.
Around Tongyeong, I’d seen magnificent boats with dragon heads. This was all to do with the Battle of Hansan, a major naval battle in the 16th century which took place close to Tongyeong. Japan were attempting to invade China via Korea, and entered through the strait between Geojedo and the mainland. Korean naval Admiral Lee Sun Shin successfully defeated the Japanese naval fleet at Hansan Island, a small island between Tongyeong and Geojedo.
Although there were English explanations at the exhibitions, Umma hilariously explained the bloody battle by pointing at weaponry and making sound effects.
“Japan… Korea… meet at sea… swords….Sssshhhhing! Sssshing! Cannon… boom!”
I knew a bit about Lee Sun Shin. His statue stands outside my elementary school. And he even has his own Lego set at Emart.
But I had no idea this epic event in Korean history happened so close to where my ancestors lived. It was an exciting thought. I wonder if my great great great great great great great great grandma heard the gunfire.
At lunchtime, Umma and Appa took me into a building with raw fish restaurants on every level. Except one.
With a huge portrait of John F Kennedy greeting customers at the door, Kennedy Hall assaulted my eyeballs with all manner of kitschy Americana.
“Is this an American restaurant?”
“No! Korean!” laughed Umma.
My meal was cream soup, red wine, garlic bread, beef ribs and fried rice.
After this confusing lunch, we met Sister 1 who’d just arrived from Suncheon.
“What did you do today?”
“I saw all of Tongyeong.”
“Ah… the Tongyeong Tour!”
We watched some crappy Kdramas at Umma and Appa’s house that involved old rich women glaring at each other angrily for a very long time, then fell asleep.
At the crack of 5am, Umma grumpily ushered us out the door and into the car where we drove to a sunrise festival. I perched on a pile of wood and stared out to the ocean. Umma shivered and grumbled about the cold next to me.
“Are you cold?” asked Umma. “Put on my gloves.”
“No thanks. I’m okay.”
“But it’s very cold. Put on these gloves.”
“Put on the gloves!”
“Well… do you want some odeng soup?”
“How about coffee?”
“Umma! I’m really not cold. Look, I’m wearing five layers of clothes!”
Barely keeping my eyes open, my first sight of 2015 was a Kpop group not wearing pants, playing keytar and dancing around with violins.
The first few rays started to shine through the clouds. The keytar women left and epic classical opera boomed through the stage speakers. The crowd armed their selfie sticks.
And then the first sun of 2015, impossibly golden, rose and sat photogenically between a gap of well-placed clouds. Like the universe somehow knew that this moment was to be captured on smartphones and posted on social media. #nofilter
“Happy New Year,” croaked Sister 1 from under her fluffy hoodie.