Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas in the Clouds

One of the things I think I miss about Christmas Day back home is the peace and quiet the day usually affords, even if around 40% of my city's population is from South Asia and Islam is probably the most practised religions there these days. It's still a public holiday where not even public transport runs, so it's that one day of the year when the streets are quiet nobody's at the door or on the phone trying to sell you something.

Christmas Night in Korea had been a little unusual in that the occasional ajeossi singing and phlegm throwing echoing around the local streets was replaced by the kind of blood-curdling shouts and screams which the extras from The Last Samurai would have been proud of. I can only assume that some particularly heavy drinking had been going on. I awoke Christmas Day at 7.30am to the sound of the mini-mart below us opening up and street vendors hawking their produce via loudspeakers - immediately experiencing the sinking feeling you get from knowing that Christmas in Korea is really just another day. Well, more or less - it's a public holiday, but this doesn't extend to shops - where the day is a major shopping experience. In fact, it seems that even the stores owned by Christians usually open as soon as the proprietors return from their church services.

I didn't want this Christmas to go the way the one last year went, which wasn't terrible but just felt somehow empty, so I'd made some plans. Unfortunately, Meniere's had also made plans and I stayed in bed most of the morning and part of the afternoon, venturing out to have lunch at Korean Mother's nearby apartment, and lie on her couch for a change of scenery. Things had improved by the evening, and we headed off in the direction of the Christian Kosin University, which was having a Christmas Tree Festival on their campus. The subway was full of people, and when we reached the bus stop where we needed to continue our journey from, the buses were also crammed - imagine a vehicle which has already been reduced to standing room only - with no standing room - and another twenty people getting onto it regardless in apparent defiance of the laws of physics, and that's what you're up against. So we grabbed a taxi instead with an elderly couple who'd been at the stop, and who also weren't prepared to play the Korean Public Transport version of Twister.

I'm not sure we fared much better. The roads up to Kosin University - which appears to be on top of a mountain, meant our taxi experience was more like a roller-coaster. At the University, the lights are spread out over a large area and while some pieces were overtly religious some were not, and one advantage of its mountainous position were backdrops of Busan and ships docked far below in uncertain locations. Korean network MBC were filming something amongst the lights but we couldn't tell what.

In addition to the tree lights, four large screens featuring festive scenes which the public could see themselves in via a camera proved quite a hit, and there were a couple of multimedia displays powered by PCs linked to old CRT monitors placed among some rocks - complete with unprotected extension sockets heading off in some uncertain direction. It had better not rain I thought to myself.

As part of the Christmas Tree Festival, which appears to last from December 6th to January 13th, there are regular events in one of the halls of the campus which differ from day to day. An 'African Night' was scheduled for 7.30pm but we were told it was limited to a hundred people, so we turned up early and caught the end of a display of Korean dancing and drumming which I was sorry to have missed.

The African Night turned out to be staged by African students attending Kosin University - much to my relief; anyone who's been in Korea for any length of time knows how badly that could have gone otherwise. However, following an uncontroversial song for African Unity and a mime encompassing the notion of how Jesus can save you from drink and homelessness... we were treated to a Powerpoint presentation entitled 'African Heroes'. We were on safe territory for a while with some sports stars and Nelson Mandela, but when Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi appeared I turned to raise an eyebrow towards my wife and found she'd simultaneously turned to do the same towards me. I know we're all supposed to be friends now, but as far as my country is concerned it's a friendship with a lot of fairly recent history. Well, that's cultural perspectives for you I suppose. We couldn't make out all the names of the people who followed - the screen was partly obscured by a banner and my knowledge of African politics is far from encyclopaedic - but from what I know, or think I know from my Western culturally-imperialistic perspective, I imagine that some of them are not on Amnesty International's Christmas Card list.

We escaped to the Nampodong district on a cattle-truck cleverly disguised as a bus, which rolled around the narrow roads down the mountain in a scene which could easily have been from a disaster movie had people decided to accompany the constant banging and clattering noises with some screaming. I held on to the overhead handles as though my life depended on it, which it probably did; had the bus stopped suddenly it's entirely conceivable that twenty Koreans and one rather stunned looking Westerner would be picking themselves up from the tarmac twenty feet down the road. Or not. If you want to see a video of the route - there's one here on YouTube - feel the bumps! Korean roads, mountains and buses - three things which should never be mixed.

Nampodong was extremely busy - confirming my theory that in Korea December 25th, if nothing else, is an important date in the retail calendar - and we decided to go to get something to eat rather than try and fight our way through the crowds. But if we thought after the mountain experience we'd finished going downhill for the day, our choice of restaurant was to prove otherwise. We tried a local DVD Bang but there was a thirty minute waiting time, so we headed home for video-on-demand via our MegaTV box instead.

If I hadn't been forced to spend half of the day in bed, I imagine my Christmas Day would have been even more hectic. Last year, I was happy enough to have had a quieter day even if I wish I could have had something better than a mandu lunch. It may be a sign of my gradual Koreanisation that doing nothing make me nervous these days, and I feel I have to be out doing something whenever I'm up to it. I know a Korean couple back in the UK who don't ever plan to return to their country - and one of the reasons they cite is the pace of life here. In other words, being here can make you this type of person but it's not necessarily a good thing. Tune in next year for an even crazier day...

Korean tags: 성탄절, 크리스마스, 출연, 나무,


daeguowl said...

No tribute to Idi Amin or Robert Mugabe then?

Anonymous said...

i didnt see this beautiful scene, even i live in Busan, Thanks for your nice pics. nice blog

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