In Korea, winter/spring vacation is similar to summer vacation in America. Two blissful months off from school (though Korean students and some teachers are often required to come in anyway!). In the middle of the vacation, usually the second week of February, all the students and teachers return to school for the final few days of classes and graduation. Today was Su Bin’s graduation from high school and the end of my first semester as an ETA.
The weekend after I came back from my winter break travels, my host family celebrated the Lunar New Year, or Seollal. Along with Chuseok, Seollal is one of the most important holidays in Korea. I’ve mentioned before that my host family is always busy and does not spend a lot of time together, but this weekend was a brief time for them to take a break and enjoy each other’s company.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite movies was The King and I. It’s been many years since I’ve seen it, but I loved the story of the British governess, the king of Siam, and the intrigues of the royal court. I knew fairly little about Thai history other than the events and historical figures in the musical, so I was eager to learn more about a country that had always held a special place in my imagination.
On January 8th, I sat with Host Mom and Ye Bin at the kitchen table, reviewing my itinerary for my winter break trip. I will be in this city, in this country, on this day, I said, pointing at the organized spreadsheet I had printed for them. These are my flights, these are my planes, these are my ferries. This is how you can contact me because I don’t have an international phone plan. Ye Bin nodded, listening intently, then looked in the living room.
“Where is your suitcase?”
I picked up a small hiking backpack that fit within AirAsia’s 7 kg carry-on limit. Ye Bin raised her eyebrows, probably thinking about the two oversized suitcases I had brought with me to Korea. But I decided to pack sparingly for my 27-day journey, hoping I would have just enough room for souvenirs.
Host Mom asked me in Korean when I was meeting my friends.
“No friends, just me.”
Maybe I shouldn’t have waited until the last minute to mention that. I could almost see Host Mom’s thoughts. She’s lucky she can get by in Korea–what’s she going to do by herself in southeast Asia?!
I’ll be fiiiiine, I assured her. Enjoy having some time away from me.
So I left. Honja.
Food, stickers, and an interesting taxi ride.
This week, I celebrated my first Christmas away from home. While several of my ETA friends had booked their flights back to the states for the holidays, I chose to stay in Korea and save my vacation days for a trip to southeast Asia in January. So I knew that a holiday season without my family would be very different than what I was used to–and I prepared myself for the bouts of homesickness I had been warned about at orientation.
An annual tradition in middle and high schools in Korea is the school festival. In the morning, students turn their classrooms into carnival booths and food stalls to raise money for charity. In the afternoon, they showcase their talents in a concert. Our school festival was held on Christmas Eve, and it was one of the most memorable days I’ve had in Korea so far.
Originally published by Reach the World, December 18, 2015
Before coming to Korea, I knew relatively little about the country where I would be living for a year. I had heard some k-pop songs, I had read some history, and I had known that students went to school for as long as 14 hours a day. In the five months since I’ve been here, I have had the honor of learning so much more about this beautiful country and its kind people. And I know I still have so much more to learn during my second semester.
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!
“Ann-young-ha-se-yo!” the classes chanted through my computer screen.
I sat in my room at 10:30 PM, my computer plugged in with the ethernet cable to ensure the Skype session would run smoothly. I looked through my computer screen at the rows of cheerful fourth-grade faces, thousands of miles away in Quebec. On the far wall, a clock read 8:30 AM. For three months, the students and their teacher, Mr. Kaplin, had been reading my Reach the World articles and sending in questions about Korea. What do you do with your host sisters? What is your favorite Korean food? Do you miss your family?
Now was the final part of my volunteer experience–the videoconference.