Moving to a different country throws off all of your internal clocks. First you deal with the jet-lag and the disparate timezones, the nature of switching from what was day back to another day, in the future, in the new place where you arrive. You run on a different schedule, and do things at different times of day, and on other days of the week. Something I didn’t realize: it also disrupts your long-term clock. Without long-ingrained home-culture alerts around you, the seasons don’t read the same. Despite the fact that today is Christmas, everything in my body and brain is telling me that it’s not.
Winter in Toronto means a number of things: arctic winds, an up-tick in Timmy’s sales, and even more constant obsession about the weather (talking about the weather is Canada’s national sport). Seasonal beers feature warm spices, buildings blast the central heating, and people disappear inside of their voluminous winter coats. Snow mounts. People gather.
As Christmas approaches, other things begin to also build-up. Carols, of course, begin playing as soon as Halloween is over, building in frequency and obnoxiousness (as they claim more airtime, radio stations have to delve deeper into their stores of covers and novelty Christmas songs), until they become omnipresent, a constant ring of cheer inescapable at any moment. Lights begin to string across houses, and suddenly the frigid nights provide some tiny beacons of pleasantness in the cold and the dark. Stores become more crowded and then utterly intractable and then an actual offense to human dignity. Cards arrive in the mail. Cookies are baked and eaten and baked again. You seek out Christmassy foods and share them with others, and you have them shared with you. Late at night, low-quality stop-motion animations of classic Christmas tales transport you instantly back to every Christmas of your childhood when you tried to catch Santa, when you got the one perfect gift, and when you existed as nothing but happiness, warmth, familial love, and probably a little exhaustion for a full day in the coldest time of year.
Christmas in Korea is more of a couple’s holiday (like so many other Korean holidays), where one goes on an expensive date. Koreans buy delicate, elaborate Christmas cakes, and dorky, elaborate Christmas hats. When I wished my co-teachers Merry Christmas yesterday and produced their gifts, they were shocked and unprepared for the generosity. The grade six teachers, in a sweet showing of Korean friendship, would not allow me to leave their office until I had devoured my own weight in fried chicken, and later taken a to-go case for the road. Otherwise, little else changes.
The winter season here also comes with different cultural markers. As a Canadian, my views on temperature and season are ludicrously skewed, and I am willing to accept anything above freezing as autumn. But I couldn’t tell when the Koreans deemed winter to have arrived, because their seasonal signals are different. The fancy cakes and the stupid hats begin to appear, but I was barely aware of them until I read about it elsewhere on the internets.
What is winter in Korea? Turning the ondol (hot water pipes under your floor) on exceptionally high and pressing yourself against the vinyl flooring to warm up. People disappearing into their winter gear, but in different ways: children are swallowed whole by enormous, marshmallowy North Face jackets, while adults swaddle their necks in metres and metres of scarves, erecting enormous, Victorian-bee’s nests of material around their necks. Women and girls from age 13 to 29 stalwartly refuse to abandon their skirts for warmer clothing, and quiver, bare-legged, out in the streets, muttering about the cold. Ajosshi puke, usually rinsed away by store-owners or drifted off to the gutters, freezes into harsh, orange-beige ice lumps. Street meat stalls drape tents around themselves to trap the heat inside, creating tiny mobile shanty restaurants on every street corner.
I came to accept that it was winter, but without those Christmas accoutrements, without the unyielding blasts of Christmasness that my home-country inundates me with, my brain cannot accept that it is Christmas. I know, theoretically, based on evidence and the passage of time, what day it is, but I can’t really feel it.
And it won’t be Christmas for me, at least not in the Pavlovian series of triggers my brain requires to comprehend the holiday. I won’t help my sisters and my niece bake shortbread cookies, desperately trying to reign in the 7-year-old as she attempts to upend every container of sprinkles upon an individual cookie. I won’t help my sister decorate our Christmas tree while we watch a Pixar movie, on the weekend after my birthday. I won’t live in the Christmas village my mother erects in our home, and I won’t complain loudly about it while I secretly enjoy it all the same. I won’t wake up early to raid the Quality Street chocolates, ferreting away the orange and strawberry cremes before my sister and father can get to them. I won’t live in an ocean of wrapping paper. I won’t hear my father mutter about putting up the Christmas lights, while quietly remarking on his plans to develop the house into a near-Griswoldian wonderland. I won’t visit my grandfather, or place wreaths on the graves of those grandparents that have passed on. I won’t pile turkey and ham upon my plate in a relative’s house, I won’t stand bewilderingly in front of the tomato aspic and wonder at it, and I won’t pull Christmas crackers with my cousins.
I suppose this is part of growing up, of becoming your own person: building your own traditions, taking the ones you love and reincorporating them into your life once more, and forgoing the ones you can’t partake of when life pulls you away. I will have a Christmas dinner. I will eat turkey, and I will make cards and gather over food. I will exchange gifts with my friends, the people I adopt as my surrogate family when I’m far away, and we’ll all yearn for those people we’ve left at home, for the people we want to be with just slightly more than the current company. We’ll approximate and attempt to generate a Christmas like each of our own together, halfway around the world.
It won’t be our Christmases, but it will be a Christmas. I take pride in my grown-up points, in my sudden blast of independence, and go on loving the life I’ve begun here, but I can’t deny that, for just one day, I want to be home.
(Post-Script: cue oceans of tears from my relatives, expressed in the comments below. Go!)