An Unconventional Holiday

couple christmas photos

When you hear ‘Christmas’, imagery of decorated houses, strewn Christmas lights, cinnamon candles burning, cookies in the oven and a constant flow and family and friends typically comes to mind. It probably comes as no shock that Christmas in Korea looks quite a bit different. Although we celebrate it as a time to draw close to family and friends and celebrate Christ’s birth; for Koreans, it’s the most romantic and date driven day of the year. If you have a special someone in your life, Christmas Eve and Christmas are celebrated much like Valentine’s Day in the States. There are even some popular areas in Seoul and Busan that shut off all the lights at midnight on Christmas so couples can kiss in the dark.

So what does Christmas look like for us? Not quite the same as back home but something that I have grown to love all the same. I try to keep all the traditions I can from back home such as homemade cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning like my dad makes every year, or making homemade decorations since they can be expensive and hard to find here. But there is one thing that I actually love about being an expat in a different country during Christmas and that’s being disconnected. Disconnected from the ads, the crowds and the commercialized version of Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with all of this, I’ve just been able to view it from an outsiders perspective. And I’ve grown to just enjoy getting back to the root of what the holiday means to me, without all of the other distractions that are so easy to fall into. All the ads plastered everywhere promoting the latest and greatest, parents stressed out to try and pay for a Christmas their kids will love and the pressure to buy buy and impress.

Living in Korea, Jeremy and I have been able to lead a much more simplistic lifestyle compared to back home. Most of our disposable income is spent on travel, majority of our furniture was found in the trash (ok, this is a little extreme for most I agree), and many things are not available here so we’ve learned to live without many of the products and conveniences of home (although we never complain when boxes full of American goodies get sent in the mail). It’s been a sort of big ‘reset’ button on our thinking towards spending, need vs. want and how we view consumerism. And these views have followed into the holidays. Living in Korea has shown us that you don’t need a fully decorated apartment, pile full of gifts under the tree, or many other things that signify ‘Christmas’ in the States to truly have a great holiday. What’s most important to us is time spent with those you love, enjoying holiday traditions while making new ones of your own and most importantly to Jeremy and me is celebrating the birth of Christ. All you need at Christmas are the ones you care about…and peppermint hot chocolate never hurt either. I hope you all have a great Christmas and get to celebrate with the ones you love!

 

Saying Goodbye

cats in korea

I always thought that people who cried over animals who died or were lost or had to be given away were…well, silly. And I think I was the only one who didn’t cry at the end of the movie ‘Marley’. It’s a dog people, why were people so upset? I just didn’t understand how people could get so attached to an animal. This coming from a person who never had pets growing up. Unless you count a guinea pig that we tortured played with as a pet. Not quite the same. That is until we got a pet of our own, Zeke, about a year ago. I wasn’t exactly a huge cat person but fell in love when we went to our friends house who’s cat just had a litter and saw Zeke sitting there. I instantly became attached with an animal that I didn’t think possible. I spent the next year being followed around by our little black cat who always wanted to be around us, begged to be held, and who fell asleep curled up and purring next to me day after day. So you can imagine how I feel after originally thinking we would take him with us when we moved; and for several reasons that I won’t go into, we made the difficult decision that if someone offered to take him, we would give him up. Well our prayers were answered a few weeks ago when two new teachers came to town and fell in love with him. And off to his new home he went.

korean cats

I’ve just realized how much he was a part of our daily routine. The cat that as soon as we walked in the door, was there waiting for us and would meow until we picked him up. The cat that would wait for Jeremy and I to be cuddled up in bed at night and then decide to sit on top of us until we made room for him in the middle and then curl up and purr himself to sleep. The cat that would sit and watch me cook or wash the dishes in the kitchen (most likely in hopes that I had chicken for him). The cat that would sneak into the bathroom when I was in the shower to play with the water. And the cat that anytime I raised my voice (in anger or even just excitement; guess he can’t differentiate the two) would get so upset that he would run to wherever I was in the apartment and nip and bite at me to tell me to calm down and be quiet.

It is these small things that we grew so accustomed to and made this expat apartment feel like a home.  And now consequently, what makes it feel so strange without. I have no regrets about getting Zeke and I know that giving him away to a great home was the right choice even as hard as it was. And believe me when I say that I’ll now be bawling along with everyone else anytime we watch a movie where something happens to the family pet.

Our Little Blue Matiz

A little over two years ago we made our first ‘big’ decision and bought our first car together as a married couple. A 1999 Daewoo Matiz for the price of $200. Now I realize that it doesn’t look all that great on the outside…or the inside for that matter. When buying your first car as a married couple, you’re not typically dreaming of rust spots, no air con, and having to sit sideways in the back seat because it’s so small. Oh and when we first bought it, anytime it would rain, we had to push start it. Nothing says ‘First Year Bliss’ like pushing a clown car in the pouring rain on the way to work. Don’t worry, we eventually got this fixed.
daewoo matiz

We bought the car for a mere $200 from some friends who were upgrading (I don’t blame them). When we purchased it (aka us handing them cash and them handing us the keys…how official) we had anticipated that it would only last through the summer rainy season, another two months. For less than what we spend on groceries in one month we thought it was a great deal. Little did we know that our little blue Matiz would still be chugging along two years later.
daewoo matizThe only negative with our dream car is that it wasn’t exactly legal. And by ‘not exactly’ I mean not at all. We bought it from friends who bought it from a teacher who was leaving and who never gave them any paper work in order to unsure or title it. So in the two and a half years that we had it, we never had it insured and it still technically belonged to an owner who was long gone by that point. Not the smartest choice but one we willingly made for the chance of a cheap car in a different country.

We honestly weren’t too worried though seeing as how in the almost three years we’ve lived here, we’ve never gotten pulled over and even if we were, many times cops in our town do not know much English and don’t want to deal with waygooks (foreigners) so they usually wave you on. We were golden…

Until…I walked out of class one day to my boss telling me he had very bad news. And of course I stared sweating thinking he was angry with me for playing Hangman in class…again. Turns out I had parked illegally right outside of the school (weird seeing as how there were dozens of cars surrounding mine and they were just fine) and my car had been towed. Oh and better yet, he started asking me ‘Who’s Matthew?’ Apparently they had figured out our little secret. So after a very awkward car ride with my boss to the tow station, we grabbed our things and said goodbye to our  love. They wouldn’t let us take it because well…it didn’t belong to us…technicalities. But that’s ok because we found out that there were over 70 tickets linked to the car from us and previous owners. But thankfully we didn’t have to pay those…because it didn’t belong to us.
daewoo matizSo what started as our trash car, quickly turned into our favorite and we’re sad to see Ol’ Blue go and get impounded at the end of the month. We’ll be framing the key to always remember our first little clown car in Korea.

Flashback to Korea 1984

Today we’re going to go on a little flashback to Korea 1984. Have you ever been back to the same place and marveled at how much it has changed? Remember which stores used to be where, or head to a certain shop only to realize that it had been replaced. I can’t imagine doing that in Korea because even in the short three years we have lived in our town, we have seen so much change and turnover. The country as a whole which was in near ruins just 50 years ago after the war, has grown, advanced and improved exponentially in such a short amount of time. The island that we live on was actually used as a POW camp during the war. Meaning that afterwards they pretty much had to start from scratch. But even in the 80’s, cars were not a common addition to the average family and there was only one paved road in the town. Crazy huh? Below are some photos taken by a friend of ours who came to our town to work in 1984.
Korean Farmer in 1984Okpo South Korea 1984Some things never change though, and that’s in the best way possible. Women like the ones in the photo below can still be seen on the side of streets selling fresh produce from their gardens.
Farmers Market, Okpo 1984Okpo, South Korea 1984
Okpo South KoreaOne of the main streets in Okpo
These are two photos taken just a few months ago. It’s amazing how the town we live in has boomed and grown rapidly in the last 30 years!
Modern Day South Korea
Okpo South Korea 2013

Hiking at Wolchulsan National Park

Wolchulsan National ParkFour day weekends are something that in the states we would just stay at home and relax but in Korea, we take every opportunity to head out of town. This past holiday we headed just three hours west to Wolchulsan National Park near the west coast of Korea. By far the smallest national park in the country, the jutting mountain and promise of incomparable views got us in the car Thursday afternoon.
wolchulsan national park, koreahiking path at wolchulsan national park, korea

Wolchul Mountain itself actually reminded me a lot of Seoraksan (another must see in Korea) that we visited last year. We set off early in the morning on Friday with intentions of just seeing the bridge that connected two peaks, over a 120m (390 ft) drop, and then turning back. We were surprised when just 45 minutes later, we saw the orange of the bridge from around the corner.

bridge at wolchulsan national park, koreabridge at wolchulsan national park, koreabridge at wolchulsan national park, korea

Since it was a surprisingly short amount of time, we decided to press on and do the entire route which took a total and five and a half hours and included a 809m (2,654 ft) high peak.

peak at wolchulsan national park, korea
wolchulsan national park, korea

With it’s beautiful views, challenging (for me at least!) course and stunning views, Wolchulsan National Park has come one of my favorites.