Kimchi-making and solo train rides on Christmas

Saturday 24 December

I spent Christmas Eve making kimchi with my aunties in my grandma’s apartment (located in the Suyeong district of Busan). When the image below was taken, we were at the stage of slathering the spicy marinade into the salted and rinsed cabbages and wrapping the marinated cabbages up to place securely into containers where they would ferment for some time. Although Koreans don’t really celebrate Christmas like New Zealanders do or treat it as a special day, I wanted to see my family for it anyway, so I trained down to Busan and visited them for the weekend.

I learn a lot of Korean when I’m around my grandma, aunties, uncles and cousins because they don’t simplify or dumb down their Korean for me (which I appreciate as I would feel patronised otherwise), but this also means I don’t understand a lot of the words they use, i.e. 김장, 순하다, 기생오라비 (a geisha’s male companion – my grandma used this term to make fun of my cousin after she saw his tattooed eyebrows). I noticed how differently my family spoke to people in Seoul because of their strong dialects; everyone in Busan sounds like they are constantly angry, and there is something about this harsh, musical, snappy tone that makes me feel at home.

The people in my Korea University class were surprised when I introduced myself as a New Zealand exchange student with Korean heritage — there are very few Korean students at the Korean language centre (so far, I have only met one other Korean 교포 from New Jersey). At times, as a 교포, it feels as though I can never quite escape the status of being unusual, an outsider, or excluded from the mainstream group — whether it be in a European New Zealand context, in a South Korean context, or even in a Korean language-learning context.

I really feel that this trip is giving me and will give me the opportunity to become more confident in my Korean identity and reconnect with my roots. Years from now, I imagine I will reminisce with my family about the time I lived in South Korea for four months, learning Korean, visiting Busan, and even making kimchi.

Sunday 25 December

It’s 4:49 pm on Christmas day, and I’m on the KTX alone, on my way to Seoul after spending the weekend with my family in Busan. I feel quite sad that I’m alone on a train at Christmas. No one celebrates Christmas here like it’s celebrated in New Zealand. The way that Christmas is celebrated in New Zealand (with family and traditions and lots of food) is the way Lunar New Year’s is celebrated here. Christmas in Korea is a day for couples to go on a date, for Christians to go to church, or to get together with your friends and do something fun. Christmas in Korea mostly means lots of people everywhere and department stores competing against each other to see who can set up the best Christmas lights exhibition. The lack of Christmas specialness and festivities reminds me more than ever that I am a long way from home. 

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