About 'Open Mike in Busan'
Oh the Christmas magic. I hadn’t originally planned to talk about this happy time of year, but as the day rapidly approached it seemed odd to be talking about my apartment experiences as originally intended on the 22nd December. So I volunteered to veer off course and tackle a topical subject. I wasn’t particularly well at the time though, so fed up as I was I seriously considered telling the listeners how I celebrated Festivus back home. But finally I decided that could be a bit mean, or maybe the Christmas spirit did finally get to me. I turned up at the station wearing a Santa hat with flashing lights, which nicely distracted everyone from the Meniere’s-related spaced out look in my eyes and inability to focus. Happy Christmas!
Since it’s Christmas, I thought I’d talk about my Christmas experiences in Korea, and how they differ from Christmases back in England.
Giant dancing monster
I wasn’t expecting as much of a celebration of Christmas before I came to Korea, because I really didn’t associate it in my mind as a heavily Christian country, although yes, in reality a significant percentage of the population are Christians. But if nothing else, I should have realised that – like in England – Christmas is a commercial opportunity even without its religious element.
The first year I was here I saw a Christmas show on TV, but alongside the dancing Santa there was a dancing monster [OK – I said monster on the radio – let’s face it though, it was a giant dancing turd - no joke] and another dancer in a skeleton costume. I think it adds to the feeling that there might be a Christmas in Korea – it’s just not quite the Christmas you expect.
I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas
The weather in Korea at Christmas is quite different than in England. We get a reasonable amount of snow there because England has four seasons [see what I did there?] - so there’s at least a chance of having what we call a ‘White Christmas’ - snow falling on Christmas Day, or at least some snow on the ground. Even if we don’t get snow on the ground, it’s often could enough that when you wake up, the trees, the ground and the windows will be white with frost, so it feels more festive.
The problem with the weather in Busan is that it’s hardly ever snowed while I’ve been here, and there’s hardly ever any frost. Sometimes it’s cold enough to freeze water on the ground, but you usually don’t see the trees and everything else go white with the ice. It seems to snow a lot in the rest of the country - and certainly that’s to be expected further north – so maybe I’ve just been unlucky in the three Christmases I’ve already had here, or maybe this is the way it’s always going to be. But in my first year year – on Christmas Day – it was 15 degrees Celsius, so it really didn’t even feel like winter, let alone Christmas.
My first Korean Christmas
For my first Korean Christmas, we couldn’t find a tree to buy, but my wife found some Russian-made Christmas lights, and a bit of tinsel, and hung it around the apartment.
My wife’s uncle is a Christian pastor, and he insisted we visit his church for the Christmas Eve service. I was raised a Catholic although I don’t go to church any more, but I was so desperate to make things feel like Christmas I agreed. I didn’t get much out of it though, because it was all in Korean and I didn’t understand.
Then on Christmas Day we went out with my mother-in-law. She’s a Buddhist, so Christmas means nothing to her really, but she knew it was significant for me, and maybe a little for my wife as well because we always celebrated Christmas in England. So she took us out for a meal. I suppose you’d say that was my first Christmas lunch in Korea. Of course, it’s really a tradition in England to have a big lunch with your family.
Lunch was... mandu. So that really wasn’t like an English Christmas lunch, because in comparison it was quite basic. I guess Western Christmas lunches in general are very big affairs – turkey, potatoes, lots of vegetables and so on. A lot of fuss is made over it, so in a way it’s a bit like Chuseok dinners in Korea, including the tension.
I did enjoy the mandu, but I sort of felt a bit sad at the same time because it didn’t really feel like Christmas; we ate a a small shopping centre where the stores were open as though it were a normal day, and we shopped for clothes afterwards. There was one very lonely Christmas tree outside one of the shops, and a girl dancing in a Santa costume – well, the kind of costume Santa would wear if he dressed in mini-skirts anyway. In England all the stores are closed on Christmas Day – really everything is shut down – whereas in Korea it can feel like just another day.
I suppose you could say it was a bit of a culture shock – I think as a foreigner who celebrates Christmas, it’s hard not to miss home on December 25th. In fact, it’s probably a little different for British people compared to Americans, because we don’t have Thanksgiving, so Christmas is our one big day of the year. It’s hard in a lot of ways – missing family, missing the snow and the Christmas food – but also because being a foreigner can make buying presents for people back home a lot more difficult.
I’ve tried to find Korean presents to send to people back home, but there’s only so much you can send through the post and the cost is so high I feel like I’m really giving the Korean Post Office the biggest present of Christmas. Last year I bought things from the Internet in England for my family rather than sending presents from Korea – but it’s very impersonal. Then there’s the huge problem of finding something to buy for people in Korea, especially my wife. I can’t really shop on the Internet because I don’t understand the language, and the stores aren’t much better. I find any kind of shopping in Korea completely overwhelming, and very stressful. Worrying about these things isn’t a great way to spend Christmas.
So that first Christmas felt like a bit of an empty experience, but I appreciated the effort my mother-in-law made. In the evening though we went to a café near us – it was called December and it had an all-year-round December theme – fake icicles, snow and so on – and that felt better.
Christmases since then have improved. The second year we planned things out a bit more, and went to Kosin University for the Christmas Tree Festival – that’s basically lots of trees lit up by Christmas lights, but it was nice – it made the day feel more special. There were some other cultural events going on in a theatre on the campus, such as Korean drumming and a religious show put on by some African students. And then we went to Nampodong, where we had a late Christmas lunch – pizza – but it had a hair baked into it so it wasn’t so nice. The streets were crowded with shoppers. I suppose I knew it would be like that with the stores open – but it was still a shock to see.
Christmas Day Shopping
Last year – my third Christmas here – I actually spent a large part of the day at Lotte Department Store. In fact, Nampodong has its Christmas Tree Culture Festival so we’d already been there to see that, and it was nice because it feels like shopping in the evening just before Christmas in England, with all the streets lit up by lights and trees. But the department store was hell – there were so many people you could hardly move sometimes. I’m not quite sure I’d do it again. And Christmas lunch that year was a Mexican tortilla.
This Year’s Plans
So this year I’ve put up our Christmas tree, but our Russian Christmas lights quickly stopped working. You know, having cheap Christmas lights stop working is very much part of the Western Christmas tradition so that reminded me of home. Anyway, I found that one of the wires had come loose, and it needs soldering. So I guess I’m going to have to learn the Korean for soldering iron and do some shopping. Other than that, I’m going to a Christmas party with friends tomorrow, but I don’t have any plans for Christmas Day yet. And now I have just over 24 hours left to find a present to buy my wife, which means even more Korean Christmas shopping pressure.
Inside Out Busan
Air date: 2010-12-22 @ ~19:30