As soon as I poured the packet of hot chocolate into my mug, I smelled the peppermint. I felt a twinge of homesickness and a sense of longing that (literally) stirred within me. It smelled like Christmas. It smelled like home.
I started thinking about the Christmas I had missed last year, the Christmas I will miss this year, and the Christmases I will miss when I (may) join the Peace Corps next August. I’ve realized how long I’ve lived away through progressive photos of my two year old niece, who may not remember me the next time I see her.
Around the holidays (even though it’s merely Halloween), I’m often confronted with the sacrifices I make to lead a nomadic lifestyle, visualizing an empty seat at my parents’ dining room table substituted by an overseas Skype session.
It was Christmas Eve. We left early in the morning, departing Seoul in a bus filled with an array of expats and English teachers who would be spending the holidays on a ski slope without their families. I met a girl named Natalie sitting across the aisle, and we immediately bonded after realizing that we were both travel bloggers and had happened to be in the same teaching orientation.
We arrived at the mountain around noontime, and after purchasing a half-day ticket, I was feeling spontaneous, opting to learn something new this Christmas. I traded in my skis for a snowboard, and spent the afternoon climbing up the bunny slope and consistently landing on my ass. At the end of the day, I felt like I’d gotten run over by a bus, but in a good way.
I wasn’t too disheartened with my failed attempt at snowboarding, since winter sports in Korea resemble a fashion show more than an extreme sport.
After showering and stretching our sore muscles, I joined some others for dinner at a Western-style restaurant with crisp cloth napkins and bottles of red wine. I felt underdressed in my jeans and hiking boots, my cheeks bare and rosy, surrounded by Koreans in shiny black high heels and perfectly-combed hair. Alas, this insecurity ceased after my first glass of wine.
The night started out innocently enough; Sean pulled out a deck of cards, and I stuffed my face with Sun Chips while drinking Hite out of a paper cup and shots from small green bottles of soju.
The game got a bit rowdier after I spilled a quarter of a bottle of wine, and the cascading liquid created a heart shape on the linoleum floor. Soon after, an English teacher/fire dancer showed a crowd of girls her lack of pubic hair, scraped off by multiple sessions of laser hair removal, in the semi privacy of the half-walled area next to the bathroom sink. This was our cue to escape from the room, and make an entrance at the “Hot Christmas Party” which was advertised on flyers in the lobby.
When we entered the party, held in the hostel’s basement, the room was essentially empty, save some Koreans in baggy snowboard gear, and other foreigners from our group. (I’m not sure why I thought it would be okay to pose like this.)
A guy from the trip began dancing behind me and tied a Santa cape around my neck. He spun me around, and I slipped on the floor, completely wiping out and landing on my back. (Despite my drunken state, the floor was like walking on an ice rink in sneakers.) I ripped the cape off my neck and stalked away in sheer anger. Moments later, Sarah fell and broke her arm.
Somehow, I began chatting with the non-English speaking Korean pictured above, wearing an oversized sweatsuit and sunglasses, and apparently we exchanged KakaoTalk (messaging app) IDs. (The next morning, I told my friends, “This is great, I need someone to practice my Korean with.” He soon invited me to drink soju with him and sent me pictures of himself posing in snowboard gear with his shirt pulled up. He asked for photos in return, so I sent him a picture of a cat. He did not find it funny, and I, in turn, was appalled at my apparent drunk goggles. Additionally, anyone who wears sunglasses indoors must be avoided.)
That night, I forgot which room I was sleeping in. I stumbled through the hallway alone, peering into multiple rooms like a creep. My friend emerged out of thin air, and luckily, I soon passed out on our room’s steaming hot, ondol-heated floor with a thick winter blanket.
I awoke to Natalie standing in my room dressed in her snowsuit, wondering what the hell I was still doing in bed. I hated myself for feeling so sick that I couldn’t lift myself up, spending money on a half-day lift ticket that I couldn’t use, and puking up bananas in the bathroom sink.
We arrived in Seoul that evening, after I spent the first part of the bus ride inconspicuously puking up blue Gatorade into a sick bag. I was supposed to be going on a date with a guy I’d recently met, but he thought I would be arriving too late, and I was not feeling my hottest. (He turned out to be an asshole anyway.)
Hitting a low point, I sat in my bed and called my ex-boyfriend to wish him Merry Christmas. After hanging up 15 minutes later, I wrapped my blankets around my shivering body and set my alarm for 11 PM to Skype with my family and compensate for the time change.
I dragged myself out of bed, bleary-eyed and hungry for my mother’s Christmas lasagna. I boiled some water for tea and plugged my webcam into my computer. My family members soon appeared on the screen: my mom, my dad, my grandmother and my sister with our obese cat. I opened my mother’s package, finding individually wrapped presents in bright, colorful tissue paper, tied with curly ribbons. I plastered a smile on my face, and relayed the last night’s shenanigans, while watching them eat pancakes and eggs. After an hour, I waved my goodbyes, and I closed my laptop.
Then I cried. I curled up into a ball on my bed and I cried, telling myself that I was being ridiculous, and I needed to get some sleep for work in the morning.
Alas, Christmas is only one day. The other 364 days of the year are not Christmas, and I’m living the exact life that I want. However, as I’m living abroad, I do occasionally step back and assess my life, realizing that family and good friendships are valuable, knowing that I don’t always want to live so far from home.
But last year, puking up blue Gatorade and crying in my sleep were overshadowed by the new friendships I made and the enthusiasm to try something new. This Christmas, I’ll miss my family and friends, but I know I’ll still be fine.
-Text by Sarah Shaw @ www.mappingwords.com. All rights reserved.
-Photography by Natalie Lyall-Grant @ www.girlandtheworld.org. All rights reserved.