A Holiday Away From Home
Updated: Apr 4
The Reality of Travel
This was my first holiday season away from my family. Certainly I didn’t expect the holidays to be quite the same, rather I didn't know what to expect. The reality is, most people (including myself) live in super tiny apartments, therefore there’s not much room for a tree. Plus, most people (including myself) don’t have an oven in their apartment, so no homemade baked goods either. Some department stores decorated their windows with garlands and light displays, however there are no grand nativity statues or inflatable Santas the way there are across suburban yards back in the U.S.
All in all, without the flashing lights, decorations or other constant reminders as there are in the states, I kept forgetting about Christmas. Yesterday, I had a full day of work and was surprised to remember the significance of the day; December 24th.
And today, Christmas morning, as I write this from inside of a bustling cafe, with every store around it open. It’s all business as usual.
Earlier, I FaceTime’d my family to catch the Yankee Swap and say hi to everyone on my sister’s side of the family. It was a little sad, to be honest, while I got to experience the festivities through a camera, it of course wasn't the same. With the excitement of traveling, you don't think about what it will be like to spend a holiday away from family. Certainly that was the last thing on my mind when boarding the flight to Korea. I had fantasies of all the adventures I'd go on, which ended up being great experiences, but I never thought about the quieter moments, the ones I'd spend alone or worse, alone when everyone else was together. It's during those times when I feel the most alienated.
Differences Between American and Korean Holidays
A few months back was Chuseok, the Korean harvest holiday, which you could guess is a family-focused celebration. Typically, for a foreigner in Korea, unless you have a close local friend or significant other, likely you will spend the holiday alone. To make it a little more isolating, the majority of places (cafes, restaurants, and stores) are closed for the day.
So, I expected a bit of the same on Christmas. While many people in Korea celebrate Christmas, it is not recognized as an official holiday. With so many places open and droves of people out shopping, it's a stark contrast to the stillness experienced in the states. I used to enjoy going for walks Christmas morning back in my home city, as it's nearly the only day when the streets get emptied and not a single other person can be seen. The only signals of human life are the parked cars and littered cups on the road. All the people going about their day was just another reminder to me that I was alone in my yearning for a holiday back home.
How to Make the Most of Long-Term Solo Travel
My friend and I had booked an AirBnB in Incheon later that evening. We had planned to cook Christmas dinner and I would bake a pie. Of course, an oven would be necessary, so I packed my mini convection oven into a suitcase and took it via cab to the apartment.
Upon arrival, we were pleasantly surprised to find a bottle of wine waiting for us on a small dining room table, plus a Christmas tree by the sofa. We blew up some balloons, uncorked the wine and ate the Christmas cookies one of my students gave to me.
Cooking in a convection oven is always a challenge, and I wonder if other people experience this too. Having been accustomed to a full kitchen in the past, there was never an issue with space. In holidays past, you just throw in two or three separate things to cook all at once, whereas we had to strategize the use of oven space. What goes in first. How long does it have to cook? Can the pan even fit inside of the oven? It was like trying to fit puzzle pieces together inside of a miniature box, though eventually we figured it out. First came the lasagne, then steak, then an Asian pear galette (thanks to this lovely recipe). We drank hearty, sweet glasses of mulled wine the entire time.
We finished the night with a Jim Carrey classic, the Grinch. Despite the small inconveniences, there was something special about the night. Maybe it was the wine, or the nostalgia of an early 2000's movie. No, I wasn't with my family, nor was I in my native country, but what I felt was unquestionably the Christmas spirit.
At beginning of December, I was somewhat sullen because as every other holiday has gone so far, I expected to spend it alone. Despite my singularity as a foreigner, miraculously, I managed to find a comfortable corner on this planet and with good company to enjoy it.