I was meeting Faith for dinner. Her boyfriend Ty would be DJing later that night, and we were grabbing a bite before going to the show. I waited beside a Baskin Robbins, where a woman stood outside in the freezing cold, chanting desperate advertising mantras into a microphone as steam gushed from her gaping mouth. She was telling every passersby, in her strained and quivering tones, about the very many cakes they could buy inside, each themed for the season. Each of them named in a nebulous massacre of Konglish, to the point that she was basically speaking English in some profane accent. At some point she may well have developed hypothermia, and just went on shaking and trembling and gesticulating at those who wandered near. When Faith arrived, she had on reindeer antlers and attached an ornament to my collar, to be festive.
It was Christmas Eve in Korea.
The season was difficult to read. It was certainly winter, as people all around us were draped in huge, warm coats and giant hives of scarves. But there were few markers to tell us the time of year, to indicate that anything special was happening. Santas bedecked any place that baked goods, but there were no songs, or decorations, or massive storms of marauding last-minute shoppers trampling one another to death. I had to check the calendar several times just to confirm the date.
The holidays this far away from home are a little like living in a fun-house of the world as you know it. Years of cultural programming allow for some degree of expectation: Christmas means carols and tinsel-soaked remixes blasting from the radio for two months, enormous piles of gifts in glossy paper, and an enormous uptick in turkey death. It means a warm fire, and a family sitting around it, and stuffing yourself full of food and love and home. So when you go somewhere where it does not mean those things, it can be a little jarring.
Christmas in Korea is, like many holidays, a couples’ affair. People buy one another themed holiday cakes and share them while staring deeply into one another’s soupy gazes. The spirit of the season is not family and togetherness, because they already had all that a few months back on Chusseok. The spirit of the season is you going on a date and eating ice cream cake in the shape of Santa’s buttocks. There are sales in the enormous department stores, and you go about your regular life. Nobody notices that a fuss is not being made, because this is not the time of year in which a fuss happens. Never is a roast beast even considered, let alone stolen by a Grinch and returned. People don’t even know what a Grinch is.
The other holidays, too, are twisted or non-existent. Halloween exists only where North Americans are dense enough to force it into existence from the collective unconscious desire for dress-up and chocolate; Thanksgiving only to elucidate an analogue to existing Korean holidays in foreign countries. Valentine’s day is part of a triad of romance holidays, each of which is defined by specific, gendered gift-giving. If you hold a moment of silence on Remembrance Day, you are likely to be interrupted by a shower of chocolate sticks.
It’s hard not to feel like they’re doing it wrong. Of course, people everywhere do this: culture is important and altered to fit local tastes, to fill in holes or take up things that look fun. Korea already has its deeply-rooted family holidays, and takes up Christmas mostly in an effort to drive cake-sales. And ultimately, you’re just left having to get over it, because everywhere in the world this happens, and unless I want to take up the Roman pantheon and hold tight to Saturnalia, I don’t really have place to whine about corrupted holidays.
But logic can be difficult in the face of a Halloween cake, or the moony-eyed dates that couples share on Christmas, the romance holiday. It can be a struggle to put on your cultural relativism goggles when you see the holidays that are so a part of your own emotional landscape suddenly deconstructed and rebuilt in some new, bewildering shapes, as though viewed through the end of water-logged kaleidoscopes.
I once quizzed my students as to where Halloween was traditionally celebrated, and felt no end to my despair when they reported that Korea was one of the places. I thought of their experience of Halloween: the pitiful, ramshackle collection of fake spider-webs and witch hats at the department store; a sale on import chocolate; whatever meagre celebrations I could cook up and deliver to them in our English classes. This was what they thought constituted the celebration of Halloween.
With those few students who have lived in America or Canada, I sought to confirm my dismay. Did they get a chance to do Halloween when they were abroad? Yes, they answered, eyes twinkling in candied delight. Did they dress up? Did they walk from door to door? Was it scary? Was it awesome? Shame and glee showed in their eyes. Yes. It was everything and more. It was everything that is magical about childhood compressed into one great and terrible orgy of sugar-high and plastic and darkness.
Finding the real thing is hard, and opining to the locals leads to a lot of furrowed brows: we already have Halloween and Christmas, so what’s with the hand-wringing? And it’s not fair to blame them for celebrating in a way that they enjoy perfectly well.
The holidays far away, then, are then an exercise in seclusion. We cloister up with our countrymen and –women, hunt down foreign food products, and generate the closest simulacrum version of the celebration as we can. It’s not perfect: with each of the constituent parts created by substitution or squinting real hard and pretending at realness, the whole only vaguely resembles the real thing. It is a doppelgänger Christmas, a shoddy and ramshackle copy of Easter or New Year’s Eve. But it’s as close as you can get.
And in a way, you come to appreciate it all the more. Hundreds or thousands of miles and kilometres from home, you have to make the holiday yourself from scraps and fragments. You build up to your memories and generate the holiday for yourself through toil and togetherness and all that holiday spirit nonsense, because you can’t really buy it in a store. When the only thing available is a Christmas cake, you have to make the spirit of the day from scratch. The holiday is suddenly a lot more hard-won, and simultaneously it becomes pretty hard-felt.