Christmas Reflections by a Kiwi/Samoan Expat in Korea

As an avid follower of Mariah Carey (don’t all switch off now), Christmas time has always been a favourite time of the year for me. As sure as her Christmas classic AIWFCIY makes its return to the halcyon of the pop music charts and will come to dominate radio stations beginning from around the end of November, my enthusiasm for all things red, green and shiny usually reaches dizzying and somewhat annoying heights for others around me.

In short, I’m a Christmas lover, it’s always been a time of year that never fails to capture my full imagination. Christmas time contains the happiest of all memories for me. No matter what turmoil that was going on in my life, when Christmas came around, I was ready to drop the baggage, and celebrate the blessings around me. Christmas time has always given me the familiarity of built-up family tradition, comfort and provided something joyous to look forward to every year.

As a kid of the Southern Hemisphere, my Christmas memories are illuminated by sunkissed days by the beach, at the park playing with my siblings and cousins, evening-makeshift cricket games with other kids on the street where I’d usually get asked to “bowl”, not “throw” the ball at the on-strike batsman.

My Christmas memories include going to Totara Park on a scorching day to play tennis with my brother, and then jumping into the public outdoor swimming pool after running through the bush walk and failing to make it halfway up the Mt. Everest-looking staircase that all the fit people would be running up and down that winds through the mini-woods.

It is filled with memories of me and my sister boarding the bus to Manukau City mall, what people call “Manix” these days, to do last minute Christmas shopping, where I would go to Pascoes and find the cheapest possible jewellery I could afford to buy for my Mum, and praying that Mum would have enough money that particular year to get what I had not-so-subtly hinted at during Advent.

Midnight Mass was always a must. Even though my Aunt or my Uncle would drop us at church and then pick us up afterwards, we were expected to stay the whole way through to welcome the arrival of the newborn King. I always enjoyed the 30minutes before Midnight Mass as I would get the opportunity to sing along in full voice to some of my favourite Christmas Carols. There’s just something so pure and special about Christmas songs. I always loved “The First Noel” and “Silent Night.”

Christmas day itself was a wondrous and gluttonous affair. Usually held at my Aunt’s house or at ours, we would tuck into a vast array of Samoan and New Zealand delicacies. The ham was always prepared by my Mum, and the sweet and sour pork that my sisters and I had not-so-lovingly prepared the batter for the night before was always a highlight. There was the egg foo yong and the mandatory roast pork, chicken, turkey, barbecued lamb chops, pasta salad, green salad, potato salad, faiai fe’e, if taro leaves were available we would have luau, kalo, chop suey, oka, the list and our waistlines would go on.

When I became older this was followed by, or prefaced by or both, multiple rounds of very strong drinks, and presents would end up being distributed and opened somewhere during this feasting and gorging. Ultimately the last act of Christmas was passing out before the end of the Sound of Music that TVNZ would always play without fail, every, single, Christmas.

Christmas in New Zealand was quite simply wonderful. (In my mind anyway)

Living in Korea for the past 6 Christmases, and what is about to become the 7th (come tomorrow) has not been easy for someone who loves tradition and holds on to the warm memories associated with a Kiwi/Samoan Christmas. For one thing, the conception of what Christmas is over here is completely different to how we view it back home. Koreans have their own major holidays for family and Christmas is treated here more like an activity for couples, it functions kind of as another Valentine’s Day.

And I’m still not over the fact that Christmas is literally one day here. It’s Christmas Eve and I’m sitting in my office contemplating if I’ll have time to get to a store after work to purchase a secret santa gift, and then I realize I’m in Korea. Everything stays open late lol! And everything will be open tomorrow.

Which is in sharp contrast to New Zealand where it’s illegal to trade on Christmas Day, even television commercials are banned from being broadcast on state television channels. Christmas is after all about familyand surely we can go one day without being capitalist slaves. Actually, the same is true for Good Friday too.

My question is, where are the 12 days of Christmas? Boxing day? The official holiday period that runs to January 2nd? I’ve always loved the quaintness about a country that literally shuts down for the best part of a week so that people can get a break from reality so they can truly count their blessings. We don’t have thanksgiving in New Zealand, so Christmas is really the season of appreciation and thanks. Most people don’t return to work till the new year, which is a pain when you’re trying to get anything done during this period. There literally is no one there to answer the phone!

Moreover, the weather here at Christmas is completely the opposite of what I’m used to. For all the talk of the awful Christmas weather back home in New Zealand, (apparently it’s grey and dreary) at least you can say that the temperature is above zero!

In Korea, Christmas is spent hovering either slightly above freezing or wholly below. In fact, some years it has been considerably below the point at which water turns to ice. For Canadians and Americans from the snowy parts in general, this doesn’t seem to be a problem, although the part about Christmas being less of a family tradition, and more of a ‘couples’ tradition, also raises the eyebrows for these expat communities as well.

You know, when I first got here, I used to think that the reason I missed Christmas so much was because of all these wonderful memories that I had developed over the years, of doing all the activities that I have so painstakingly detailed in vivid detail earlier on in this post. But I know now what I miss most about the season.

It’s not the activities at all that I miss, it’s not the drinking, it’s not the feasting, it’s not the exchange of expensive gifts, it’s not the warm Christmas cards, the sampler boxes that I would happily consume, all of that can be had here too, if one chooses to. What it really comes down to is missing my loved ones.

Of course, it would, many would say, but there are those all over the world for one reason or another who are not with their loved ones this festive season. So what makes my predicament any different? I don’t think people fully understand how painful this really can be unless they become an expat.

Making the decision to become an expat has its marvelous benefits, such as experiencing what it’s like to live among cultures and communities that you could never have envisioned from your little-rented family home in South Auckland. I’ve had the most wonderful opportunity to travel, study in a different country, sample delectable and exotic foods, gain wider employment opportunities, and most exciting of all, I fell in love with someone from a different ethnic background who has diverse experiences of their own, completely foreign to my own unique perspectives. All things I would probably never have had the opportunity to experience if I had decided to stay in New Zealand and not move overseas.

To be quite honest, when I do visit New Zealand, it seems that these experiences are often things that people at home look up to in what can only be titled “skeptical awe”, or what I describe as an admiration that is tinged with a little bit of the green-eyed monster. Every visiting expat knows what I mean, once you’ve lived abroad, established a new life, returning to the life that once was is nigh on impossible, especially as you know you’ve changed, but more often than not, where you came from has changed too, quite simply life has gone on, it’s no longer the home you once knew.

As social media allows us to share a highlights reel of what’s going on, living overseas can appear to be a glamorous life for those who have never done it. But a true expat, and by true expat, I mean someone who has set up shop overseas like I have, not just gone abroad for a year, ie done the OE (and not just to Australia and Britain, where life couldn’t be anymore similar to NZ). The reality of living away from home although filled with enormous perks, is tempered by a sharp realization that these perks come with steep sacrifices. And one of those sacrifices is that despite all of these wonderful experiences, that without fail, there will always come that time of year where you have to suck-it-up and deal with the emotions that come from not being near your loved ones. The people who are dearest to you in this world. It could be a birthday, an anniversary of the passing of a loved one, or it could be, like it is for me, the arrival of Christmas.

You know, I have a great group of friends here in Korea, and I am not forsaking their contribution at all to the happiness of my life and the great social activities that I get to engage with, with them. I appreciate them very much and look forward to visiting them tomorrow in various locations.

But what makes Christmas so difficult for me is knowing that I will not have my loved ones in close vicinity to me. What I love about the season, or how I experienced it growing up is that, I know that my loved ones have had life test them this year, and that throughout it all, they are alive, they are healthy, they are strong and they come back to the same place every year, to recharge, to seek comfort, to seek love, to seek support from the people that mean the very most to them. And one of those people being me.

I can handle having no grandiose meal, no presents, no drinks, no gifts, no special places to go, none of that matters. But I don’t know how I’d cope, when the inevitable occurs and one of my loved ones will have to pass on, it’s a fact of life. Especially knowing that I’ve lived a large part of my life overseas now. The more time you spend apart from loved ones, the more you understand the concept of the immeasurable value of time.

My Christmas cheer is with my loved ones this year, as it is always, every year, my joy lies with them, My heart is divided between so many places, a part of it is in New Zealand, a part of it is in Samoa, a part of it is in the U.S., part of it is in Tonga, part of it in the U.K. and a part of it is in Australia.

It is the reality of being an expat, where aside from your immediate family and loved ones,  life gifts you the opportunity to meet, connect with and ultimately love so many people from all around the world, that take pieces of you with them when they return to their homes. And you, when that time-of-the-year rolls around, with all your collected memories, heartwarming and gut-wrenching simultaneously, are forced to reflect on a life that has had the immense blessings of diversity, which is cursed at the same time by eventual and perhaps even permanent separation.

However, despite this somewhat melancholic reflection, there is still one small part of my heart that stays with me, here on this winter-swept Korean peninsula. And with that part of me, this Christmas I want all my loved ones far and wide to know that they are always in my thoughts and that the only thing I’m wishing for is their happiness. The greatest gift for me this Christmas is knowing that you’re all well, pursuing your dreams and keeping me in your thoughts and prayers at the same time.

For the greatest gift I have ever known in my life, has been receiving the gift of love from other people. And the truth is, that’s all I’ve ever wanted, and nothing can beat the gift of alofa.

That thought alone guarantees that I will be blessed this festive season.

Merry Christmas, ia manuia lava le kerisimasi, alofa atu from Korea!

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