gifts

Start of Goodbyes

Today, my seventh-to-last day of teaching regular classes at Dongduk, I received a little going-away present from three of my students. All three are first year students (the equivalent of grade 7 in North America), and two of the three had been in a few of my after-school programs this year. None of them are strong students---at all---but they has never stopped them from coming to talk with me after class, which I've always loved. They presented me with a small envelope. Inside was a letter and some earrings. I was immediately impressed with the length of the letter; it was much longer than any composition they had written for me before. In the letter, they introduced themselves as "3 girls who received candies in 1-1 class." Apparently my prizes have made more of an impression on the students than I thought! They went on to tell me that they are sad to see me leave, and asked, "Will you be happy without us??" Knowing that I will miss them, they answered for me: "Maybe you won't HaHa~"

The pink, candy-shaped earrings, the girls wrote, were "composed of [their] minds," which, although I don't quite know what they meant by that, I appreciate the sentiment. Not my usual style, but I gladly put them on and am currently wearing them with pride.

The letter ends with a request to think of them often---something I'll have no problem fulfilling. How could I forget?

This has gotten me thinking about some of my old teachers. Some of them I remember for being great teachers, or for helping me learn about myself. I never would have gotten through math if I didn't have Ms Chalmers in high school for three years. Or, though I wasn't his biggest fan at the time, Mr Sardine pushed me hard in English, and I have to thank him for that. Keck, my drama teacher, supported me through my growing years in high school.

But there are also those I remember for telling us that they hated teaching. I never knew why a teacher would announce to their students that they hated being there with us day in and day out; it's not like we didn't know they were huge grumps, but to tell us straight up they didn't want to be there? That's harsh. Then why are you here? I would telepathically ask them from my seat.

Now, after being a teacher myself, I question their actions even more. WHY WERE YOU A TEACHER?? I want to scream at them. I have loved my job here since Day 1; I'm energized as soon as I get in the classroom, even if I was falling asleep on the bus on the way to school. I feel priviledged to be a teacher, to do my best to help these students grow as people as well as English speakers.

My students don't need to ask me to remember them. I always will.

Happy White Day

Just last month, on 14 February, couples all over the world celebrated Valentine's Day. On Valentine's Day here in Korea, couples don't exchange presents. It's only the women who buy chocolates for their significant other. But in the spirit of equality, White Day was created for the fellas. Today, on White Day, men are expected to reciprocate with gifts for their special lady, of course more expensive gifts than they received. Men usually give candies, jewellery, dolls or stuffed animals, or flowers.

I just learned that there's a special holiday for couples on the 14th of every month. I missed the first one of the year, "Diary Day" on 14 January. On this quiet holiday, couples can exhange diaries marked with their anniversaries and other important dates so they're ready for the year ahead. Then, Valentine's Day and White Day in February and March are the two most important couple holidays of the year.

I'm counting down the days (only 31 to go!) until the next holiday...

Turning A Year Older in Korea

Today is Seollal, the Korean New Year. The Korean New Year usually coincides with the Chinese New Year (which is also known as the Lunar New Year). Here in Korea, the Korean holiday celebrates the beginning of a new year, as well as celebrating another year of life, making it the most important holiday of the year.

I've been told for the past six months that my Korean age is either one or two years older than my Western age, but no one could tell me how to calculate my exact Korean age. The age system seemed to be so confusing, it's taken me six months to understand it. And after all that time, I now realize it's not too badeven for those of us who aren't so great at math.

So here goes.

First of all, when a Korean is born, he or she is already one year old. Then on his or her first Seollal, the little baby turns two. It doesn't matter when his or her actual birthdate is; everyone turns a year older on this day.

So let's pretend a little baby was born here in Korea on 1 December 2007. We'll call it KB, Korean Baby. KB, on 1 December 2007, is one year old. Today, KB turns two years old.

Let's pretend another little baby was born in England on the same day, 1 December 2007. This little one is named EB, English Baby. EB doesn't even turn one until 1 December 2008.

So, the little KB is always older than EB by one or two years. Before Seollal, any date between 1 December 2007 and 7 February 2008, KB is one year older than EB. But from Seollal until 30 November 2008, KB is actually two years older than EB.

In fact, I've also been told that the common Korean "birthday" is the Gregorian new year, 1 January. Koreans tell me, "Everyone turns a year older on the same day, on New Years Day." And I ask, "What new year? Lunar? Or January first?" Then they get all flustered and unsure, and I get different responses from different peopleor even different responses from the same person. But my Korean go-to girl, the all-knowing Ms Heo, was very sure when she was telling me about this interesting holiday, so I'm going to go with her answer.

Because Koreans find it complicated and difficult to explain, many people have turned to asking, "What year were you born?" instead of "What is your age?"

And with a new age comes a fresh start with a new year. This three-day holiday a family affair, very similar to Chuseok, where most people go home to visit with their relatives. At home, families eat tteokguk (rice-cake soup) and ring in the official new year wearing traditional hanbok. As well, families hold ancestral memorials, just as they do on Chuseok.

Unique to this holiday, children receive gifts on Seollal from their elders. And not just any gift, but envelopes of money. Elder relatives give envelopes with money to their children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. The amount usually coincides with the children's ages; the older you are, the more you get. It's such an important aspect of this holiday that new banknotes to banks so that people can give crisp new bills. In order to receive the envelope (called sebaetdon), the child must bow to their elders (called sebae) and wish their elders luck in the new year by saying, "Saehae bok manhi badeseyo."

So, all over Korea, happy birthday and happy new year! Welcome to the year of the rat. May you receive a lot of luck in this new year.

More:
Turning 1 in Korea the Traditional Way 
It's on Me: Paying for Dinner in Korea

Turning 1 in Korea the Traditional Way

To celebrate an American friend’s birthday, I decided to turn things a little Korean and celebrate it as a traditional first birthday. After all, it may not have been his first birthday, but it was his first birthday in Korea.

A typical Korean’s tol (first birthday) includes an abundance of food, plenty of prayers, and a gathering of friends. However, the highlight of the party is the gift-choosing tradition. This is what I wanted to recreate for my friend’s birthday because I think it’s the most curious birthday custom. A display of presents is laid out for the child to choose just two things, and these chosen presents are significant because it is believed that they forecast the future of the little baby.

Traditionally, gifts like a bow and arrow, pencil, ruler, money, and string are presented. Choosing a bow and arrow set means the child will be brave. A pencil, the child will become a doctor or teacher. A ruler, good hand skills. Money, wealth. String, a long life.

I included a few non-traditional items just for fun. The bow and arrow transformed into a superhero watch (still brave). A bottle opener either meant a good chef, or an alcoholic as some of the others at the party decided. A ball for athletic. A selection of toy cars for a mail delivery man, bus driver, and ambulance driver, respectively. A comic book for good humour. A light bulb for creativity.

Without knowing the meanings of the random gifts on the table, my friend carefully selected the ball and the superhero watch. We shall see if he does become an athletic, brave man in the future (or was this 23 years too late?).

the birthday boy with his almost-traditional birthday presents

the birthday boy with his almost-traditional birthday presents

On her first birthday, my friend at work, Ms. Heo, chose the pencil and the string, and she actually did become a teacher. We’re still waiting on the long life part, hoping the prediction will be true.

More:
Turning a Year Older in Korea 
It's on Me: Paying for Dinner in Korea