Lost In Korea: (Not) Home for the Holidays

Dispatches from the Road, Solo Travel, south korea, Working Abroad — By on December 6, 2011 at 12:00 pm

The holiday season is upon us. I usually know it’s arrived when all of a sudden my neighborhood is decked out in twinkling lights, “Last Christmas” is playing at every store I step foot in, and the Salvation Army Santa Claus — and his bells — seem to follow me no matter where I go. For me, it’s always been a slightly chaotic time but fun and exciting nonetheless. Time off from work! Old friends! An unlimited supply of eggnog!

But since this year I’m in Korea, the holidays — whether in December or in July — are different. Most, if not all, familiar traditions are unavailable. (I haven’t heard a single Christmas song yet!) Friends and family are more than just a hop, skip, and a jump away. But on the other hand, I’m having a great time and know that I’m lucky to be doing what I’m doing.

With my successful completion of several holidays abroad, including 4th of July and Thanksgiving in Korea, I thought I’d share some of my tips on how to enjoy the holidays while traveling, whether you’re on the other side of the world or on the other side of the country.

Celebrate however you can.

It’s funny — the farther I am from home, the more I like the 4th of July. Call it the patriot in me. This was the first holiday I was in Korea for and my fellow foreign coworkers and I wanted to celebrate. Although we had work as usual, we decided to recreate the two best parts of the holiday: barbecue and fireworks!

A group of us went out for a Korean barbecue dinner (hey, if it’s on the grill it counts, right?) and then all chipped in a few bucks to buy sparklers and fireworks. We headed to a nearby park and set off our goodies while bystanders stopped to watch. While it wasn’t just like home, it was still fun to do the “normal” activities.

Surround yourself with others like you.

One of the most amazing parts of traveling is meeting new people and discovering different cultures. But during the holidays, it’s nice to be around people who come from a similar background, who understand why you might be feeling a little down — for that matter, people who you don’t need a Google translator to communicate with.

Dropping by an expat bar to properly celebrate Halloween with other Westerners made me feel less silly wandering around Seoul in a flapper costume. And throwing a mini Thanksgiving feast with foreign friends, complete with dead birds and wine, the Saturday after Thanksgiving made us all miss home a lot less.

It’s OK to be a little sad.

Maybe you miss your mom’s home cooking or your cousin’s funny stories. Holidays are filled with loved ones for a reason and it’s totally normal to feel a little pang as you read Facebook statuses about the turkey dinner your family inhaled without you or see photos of your home friends gathering at the neighborhood bar.

Instead of moping, get in on the action. Try scheduling a phone call or Skype session to family and friends when everyone will be around to chat with.  This year, my group of friends threw our annual Fakesgiving feast. Since I couldn’t be there in person, I took my computer to school and Skyped in with my students. It was great to feel like I was in the middle of it all. My friends loved getting to “meet” the kids I spend all my time with, while my students loved seeing my friends and yelling “Happy Thanksgiving!” at the screen.

But then get over it.

Embrace the fact that you’re doing something new and exciting instead of the same old.

Last year, I was in Egypt for Christmas and met a really fun group of like-minded travelers from all over. Instead of battling each other for computer time to call home, we organized an impromptu Secret Santa among 12 of us. We each spent the day hunting for funny $5 gifts we could buy one another. It was a unique way to spend the day and we all had fun bonding and laughing at the ridiculous gifts you can find on the Sinai.

No matter where you are, holidays can get stressful and emotional. But if you’re traveling, take advantage of the new opportunities in front of you. After all, if you wanted the same thing, you would have stayed home, right?



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  • Sometimes when I’m not home for the holidays, a phone call or a Skype session helps lift that holiday spirit even without your family and friends back home!

  • Sometimes when I’m not home for the holidays, a phone call or a Skype session helps lift that holiday spirit even without my family and friends back home!

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