Birthday in Korea

With a December birthday, the holidays and final exams overshadow everything else. I always had lovely celebrations with my family, but I didn’t do much with my friends. During college, we were studying for exams or finishing final papers. Then it was Christmas break. So when it came to my birthday in Korea, I expected that it would come and pass like it usually did. But I was pleasantly surprised!

As I mentioned in a previous post, I volunteer to teach an adult class in Busan once a week. The day before my birthday, we were going to have our last lesson of the semester. We decided to spend half the time teaching the class and the second half having a small Christmas party. The four teachers–Nadia, Monica, Ted, and I–agreed to bring a few small snacks to the party so that we could share with our students.

Halfway through our class, Monica disappeared into the next room to bring in her snacks. Then Nadia told the class she had to make an announcement to make. I felt her two hands on my shoulders as she said, “Tomorrow is Janine Teacher’s birthday!”

Monica walked in with a cake, a card, and a gift bag, and everyone started singing “Happy Birthday.” They’d brought me a birthday cake and presents! I was stunned. I’ve never had a “surprise party,” nor have I ever really celebrated with friends. My students and friends were smiling as much as I was.

The next day, my co-teachers also sang “Happy Birthday” and gave me some hand lotion and a new umbrella–both of which are essential for the weather now! They said they wanted to sing to me on Wednesday and Thursday to celebrate my birthday in both of the time zones. I think they were worried that I might be homesick during my birthday and wanted to be especially nice.

Halfway through the day, two students came into the English office to take out the garbage. Ms. Kim mentioned that it was my birthday, and the students were immediately flustered. The first student quickly bowed and handed me a package of Oreos that seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Not wanting to be outdone, the second student looked around, saw an orange on the table, and picked it up to present to me. I love these goofballs!

When I came home from school, Ye Bin and one of her friends were waiting for me. They disappeared into her room, brought out another cake, and sang “Happy Birthday” in Korean. Then we ate fried chicken and watched a movie in the living room. It was a nice, quiet way to end the day.

Though these may seem like small gestures, this week was definitely a highlight of my grant year. It was the first time in a while that I felt like I celebrated my birthday, and I am blown away by the kindness of the people I have met in Korea. I am so grateful to my Fulbright friends, co-workers, and host family that made my day special.


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