Friday, November 28, 2008
A Korean Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving from overseas is an interesting thing to experience. I decided to teach a lesson on Thanksgiving for my advanced class of 3-4 graders (kids 11-12 yrs). I started the class off with my usual question, “how are you today?” to which the students replied, almost in unison “It’s sunny!” I took a deep breath and tried again, “no, how are YOU today?” trying to mask my frustration under a friendly smile. This time the class became quiet as the kids pondered what was obviously a difficult question. Finally someone raised his hand and answered, “Tomorrow is Friday.” I clasped my hands together and prepared for what I knew would be a long 40 minutes. Later, when I asked why November 27th was an important day, I got a variety of answers:
1) Because it’s Christmas
2) Because it’s “a day for class”
3) Because “teacha here today”
4) Because it’s Halloween
“No, no, no and no,” I said. I finally got them as close as I was going to when they guessed “American Chuseok” (Chuseok is the Korean holiday that we foreigners dub “Korean Thanksgiving.”) So the lesson proceeded, and I hope I was able to educate them just a little as to what Thanksgiving really is.
So my Thanksgiving really has been a two-part experience. The first part of my Thanksgiving was a celebration that took place at the Ambassador’s house in Seoul. I have to say, the word “house” doesn’t do this place justice. The land that the Ambassador’s house is built on is directly next to a giant palace, and the residence itself is a huge Korean style house built from giant Douglas Fir trees shipped from the United States. To get inside you have to walk through a conspicuously huge metal gate that slides about two feet to the side, and after you walk through, quickly slides shut like a giant prison door. I was joined by the majority of my Fulbright colleagues and together enjoyed a huge American Thanksgiving feast complete with entertainment thanks to the “US Embassy rock band” (consisting of a couple of interns and two middle-aged guys who butchered classics like “Paint it Black" and “Take me Home Country Roads.”) All in all it was a great evening, and the new ambassador was gracious and kind to talk to (she is from Arizona, so that goes without saying.) Below are a few pictures:
The second half of my thanksgiving took place on Thanksgiving Day here in Cheongju. My principal, a few teachers and my co-teachers took me out to dinner at a favorite restaurant where we ate a not-so-traditional Thanksgiving meal of goat and duck. It was a great time. After making a toast to me, of which all I understood was “Joon Kerry,” my principal and vice-principal handed me their glasses to share a drink with them, and once again was grateful for Korean drinking culture and it’s ability to bridge language barriers.
As the night wore on, I became engaged in a semi-philosophical conversation with the teacher next to me, Mr. Hong. Mr. Hong is a really amazing guy, he speaks almost no English but the man tries harder than anyone I have ever seen to communicate, and he is not afraid to look goofy, which I suppose is why I feel such an affinity towards him. He would lean over to my co-teacher and whisper to her, asking her how to say something, then lean over to me and try to verbalize what he had just been told. Each time he could never get the words just right, and would have to ask her again, always preferring to say it himself rather than have her simply tell me. After a while of this, due to the strange nature of our conversation we had garnered the attention of almost everyone at the table. The subject that we were discussing was what he believed to be a serious subject, and, although impossible to recreate the conversation just as it was, I will try to give you a taste:
Mr. Hong: Jon
Me: Yes Mr. Hong.
Mr. Hong: (after a long translation from my co-teacher) You tink bot sol have?
Me: I’m sorry, what?
Mr. Hong: (after turning to my coteacher again) You tink wobot hev soul?
Me: (surprised at what I thought I had heard) Do I think robots have souls?
Mr. Hong: (a large smile lighting up his face) Yes!
Me: (not sure what to say) Well, that’s a difficult question. I think, (trying to structure my answer in an agreeable way) maybe robots don’t have souls. What do you think?
Mr. Hong: (sighing loudly) I tink, maybe don’t, but maybe do. You see Eewobot?
Me: Eewobot…..oh, you mean iRobot? The Will Smith movie?
Mr. Hong: Yes! Will Smif-uh! I see and maybe tink wobot hev sol
Me: Oh I see, well the robots in iRobot, maybe they did have souls, I guess its possible…
At this point in our conversation each of my co-teachers could barely contain their laughter, and I myself was having a hard time being serious. As absurd as the question of robots having souls seemed, to Mr. Hong it was a serious debate.
Thus went my Thanksgiving dinner. A time of laughter, friends and colleagues, and some poor goat that tasted great with kimchi. And the truth is, I am really thankful to be in this place. As strange as things sometime seem, as frustrating as cultural differences can sometimes be, if I am honest with myself I know that I am incredibly blessed. Blessed to have a great girlfriend, blessed to have wonderful family and friends, and blessed to know incredible people here in Korea, both Korean and American. There is so much I am thankful for, and I’m glad to remember it today.