It is the eve of the new year and there is less than one week remaining until I leave for Kenya and begin my Mt. Kilimanjaro hiking adventure. I have been fairly busy as of late preparing for the trip, wrapping up our second semester at school, and navigating my schedule to make time for the crammed holiday season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
Obviously, Thanksgiving is not recognized in Korea, so it’s up to us to recreate the atmosphere of being surrounded by family and celebrating all the things we have to be thankful for. I briefly described the Fulbright Thanksgiving dinner, but that dinner as generous and well-intended as it is, can be a bit overwhelming and not entirely relaxing. There are over 115 Fulbright Korea teachers and other ancillary embassy people and frankly any large program gatherings tend to be more stressful than enjoyable.
Because of this, we usually use the Fulbright gatherings to plan future hangouts when we can spend quality time with the people we most want to see. Once winter vacation starts, everyone scatters to the winds and it can be hard to track them down until March. Vacation is technically the only time we are allowed to leave Korea throughout the grant year, so everyone takes full advantage and travels far and wide. Hence my planned trip to Kenya and Tanzania.
So, until now there were a lot of plans that I had to force into a small window of time. The first and foremost was a do-over Thanksgiving party, a Friendsgiving planned for halfway between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We wanted a more intimate event at my apartment and we to cook the meal ourselves, choosing all of our favorite Thanksgiving staples and making full use of my shiny new oven.
Because some of my friends were coming from out-of-town faraway places, we decided that Saturday night was better than trying to get everyone in by a reasonable time on a work day. There were a few people who canceled for last-minute commitments, but the group was supposed to include 4 Americans and 3 Koreans. 명렬 (Myeongryeol) invited one of his Korean friends, Daniel, who this year returned to Korea after 4 or 5 years living in the United States and I invited 재훈 (Jaehun), who you might remember from our recent cooking excursion. Jaehun unfortunately missed out on my scrumptious pie because of a last-minute group project amidst his packed exam season. I really do not miss that aspect of university in the slightest.
Emily was the real mastermind behind the dinner and boasted about her Thanksgiving cooking skills. She told us she’d take care of the heavy lifting: the turkey, the mashed potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole, and gravy. Turkey is practically impossible to find in Korea, so we decided a nice alternative would be baked chicken. I promised to craft an apple pie and sweet potato casserole, and the others were going to bring bread, desserts, and drinks. The evening was set to be a real feast.
That Friday when I arrived home, I was ready to settle in for the night and make the pie. Emily’s ETA was around 9 or 10pm, so I figured I had plenty of time to ease into the cooking and baking bonanza. When I reached my door, I had several messages from Daniel saying he was parked outside and at this point I really had no idea what was going on. I called 명렬 trying to solve the mystery, but he wasn’t answering. He evidently told Daniel multiple times that the dinner was planned for Friday, so Daniel arrived a day early to enjoy the feast with us.
I invited Daniel inside because it was freezing out in his car and I wanted him to enjoy his visit to Cheongju, despite the mix-up with the dates. We ended up cooking one of my freeform style dinners and enjoying a night out near 충북대(Chungbuk University), the four of us (Emily and Myeong Ryeol included). The next day we spent the entire day piecing together our meal, starting with some sympathy good-bye pancakes for Daniel before his drive home. Shortly after, the others arrived and everyone blissfully drowned in the delicious food.
The week after our Friendsgiving party my school had their final exams and I didn’t have any actual classes to teach or prepare for. Usually, the school slows down rapidly in December and I tend to be rightly bored because class time is spent giving students study hall or watching American tv dramas. Luckily on exam days I am free to travel because I’m not required to come to school. There are certain perks to being the foreign English teacher.
Instead of staying in town and most likely becoming a lump in my bed, I opted to travel to 거제도 (Geoje Island) for my third time and subsequently 대구 (Daegu) also for my third time. I wanted to visit with Emily’s host family and school and also a couple friends in Daegu that I haven’t been able to see for a while. Highlights from my long weekend include being remembered by Emily’s current 6th grade students who affectionately nicknamed me ‘Long Teacher’ last year when I visited. I also helped teach a couple classes with Emily and now am able to appreciate the inherent differences between high school and elementary students. Elementary students are loving and affectionate, but also fickle and energy-sapping.
In Daegu I had no real agenda, but I really enjoyed seeing my friend 도현 and his dog ‘Choco’. We did some shopping, which helped me loads in preparation for my trip, and visited the Daegu Botanical Gardens (대구 수목원). Daegu is a great city, but the winter and snow make everything a little less approachable, so we really forced ourselves to get out and do things as opposed to staying indoors the whole time.
After coming back to Cheongju from this mini vacation, I still had school days left. In fact, as I write I have two days left before my freedom comes. Mostly, I had to practice for the school festival with students who asked me to sing with them. Last year I sang a Korean ballad which was stressful for me, but they decided to sing an English pop song this time around; I sang a Shawn Mendes hit as a duet with one guy and my other students backed us with their instruments. It was still nerve-wracking singing in front of the entire school, but participating in the festival is a great way to bond with students and make an impression on the school.
As the new year quickly is upon us, I wanted to reflect on the final experiences of 2018. Meeting friends for twilight (metaphorically) chats and discussing what’s happened recently and how we feel about it is a great way to prepare for the next year, setting goals and milestones for the path ahead. I’m not sure if my future will include more time in Korea, but it’s important to consider the possibilities and make the most of my definite time remaining here. I also want to make a concerted effort to keep in touch with everyone I know around the globe, though it sometimes can be hard to maintain contact when life gets in the way. 2019 will be a great year (I have a special sense for these kinds of things) and be sure to revisit especially for my after-the-fact Kilimanjaro stories.