Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Getting in the Spirit of the Season

I love this time of year, where we celebrate Christmas in our own way. I love to decorate the house, attend themed parties and cookie exchanges, see light shows and any other seasonal attractions, blast Christmas music 24/7, and do the #LightTheWorld calendar (which gives you a service prompt every day of December) provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. M and I don't do gifts because we're pretty minimalist, though we definitely got them as kids and I successfully convinced M we need to do gifts (and all holidays) for our child.

This weekend, we finally got the Christmas tree and decorations up. Marwan always does the tree itself and the lights, because he's so much better at distributing things evenly. Then, I swoop in to spread all the ornaments around. This year, we got a new ornament to commemorate our tour here in Seoul. My favorite ornament, though, is one we received from our high school bus driver, S: a painted bus with our number on it and everything! (For those who don't know, M and I went to high school together and met on the bus. I was stop #1 and he was stop #2. Our commute was about 5 hours round trip every day, so we all got to know each other pretty well in those years.)

I also attended a cookie exchange, one of my favorite holiday traditions. It wasn't until I was chatting with my Australian friend S that I realized this might be a very American thing. Each attendee to the cookie exchange bakes a lot of one kind of cookie. In the case of this party, we were supposed to make six dozen but I was so afraid of not having enough that I made over 100 cookies! I don't know how this started, but my go-to cookie for these exchanges every year is a thumbprint cookie: a sugar cookie with a thumbprint full of whatever jam I feel like or have in the fridge, coated with ribbons of white chocolate. (What's your favorite holiday cookie?)

So anyway, after each person bakes a ton of cookies, we all take them to someone's house and exchange cookies with each other! You bring one kind of cookie but can leave with ten different kinds. The one I attended this year was super organized and the host even prepared a recipe book of all the cookies people made so we could know how to make our favorites. I have a big cookie tin that I only break out specifically for cookie exchanges, and it was brimming with delectable goodies by the time I left the party.

I also took time off of work so we could go on a day trip with our friends (the other N and M) when it would be less crowded. I've wanted to go on this trip for a while. We visited Petite France (쁘띠프랑스), Nami Island (남이선), and the Garden of Morning Calm (아침고교수목원) - all in Gapyeong (가평) about an hour's drive from Seoul. Petite France had some nice views, but it was honestly a little disappointing.

I hoped to find at least one French café or restaurant, but really the only thing that was French about it was the architecture and artifacts inside the buildings. There was a lot of Le Petit Prince art and some attractions that were geared towards little kids, but there wasn't much for adults to do besides walk around and take a few photos.

After Petite France, we drove and took a ferry to Nami Island - a popular destination due to Winter Sonata and several other famous shows having been filmed there. We had a lovely walk around the island and saw wildlife we haven't seen elsewhere in Korea including rabbits, black squirrels, peacocks and peahens, and a lot of ravens.

Our final stop of the trip was the Garden of Morning Calm, which was by far my favorite destination of all. I had heard wonderful things about their annual winter light show, and it did not disappoint me. I'd even go so far as to say it's better than the Christmas light shows I usually go to see in the United States.

They had so many creative installations ranging from the mystical to the religious to the musical. There were clearly defined places to take great photos, as well, so I was extra thankful that we went on a random weekday. I imagine it could get very crowded on the weekends and it would be difficult to get photos without tons of people in the background.

I love celebrating what's special about each season, and that includes Christmas. Especially when you're far from family and your hometown, honoring traditions and commemorating holidays can help you feel less homesick and more settled wherever you are. At least, that's always worked for me. Let me know in the comments below if you have a special holiday tradition or something you love doing to celebrate the holiday season when you're far from home!

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

A Happy Birthday and Friendsgiving

I heard this Mark Twain quote recently for the first time and it struck a chord within me: "The further the pendulum swings out over woe the further it is bound to swing back over mirth." This sentiment always hits me harder during this time of year, which is full of holiday cheer and unique challenges at the same time. It's one of the reasons why I never participate in National Novel Writing Month (known as "NaNoWriMo"), where writers try to write 50,000 words (usually to start and finish a novel draft) in November. It's already such a hectic time of the year for me, and I personally don't need to add one more thing to my plate.

This year marked a decade since my father passed away unexpectedly. If I had to divide my life into two segments, I would still choose my dad's death as the dividing line because of how profoundly it changed me. My sister and I still talk about how it felt like our childhood ended that night and we had no other option but to grow up faster than we planned. I wish I could go back to my self then and give her a hug and tell her everything would be okay. I think she would be surprised now to see how well we're all doing once we weathered the many storms of that season of our lives.

I had a milestone birthday this year, and my amazing friend N wanted to make sure it was special. So she worked with M to plan a whole birthday party for me, and I didn't have to lift a finger! It was so fun to see so many friends from different circles of my life in Korea get together and hang out in person. (In the case of my friend S, we've been meeting on Zoom to study Korean folktales together for 8 months but my party was the first time we met in real life!) I was blown away by the decorations, photo backdrop, food, and cake (can you believe those flowers are edible?). I felt so special and can't remember the last time I actually had a real birthday party. I am so grateful for friends like N. The Foreign Service can be a lonely life, but it doesn't have to be.

Soon after, it was Thanksgiving - which has always been my favorite holiday. It's so close to my birthday that the whole month of November always felt like a celebration to me, and I love food and getting together with my family. My love of Thanksgiving as my family practiced it and ignorance of the full history behind the holiday has led me in the past to dismiss concerns about its celebration. I regret that now, especially as I've listened in a more heartfelt way to Native Americans and the injustices they not only experienced from settlers in the past but continue to face today. I do still partake of Thanksgiving with loved ones each year - whether family back home or friends while living abroad. But I am trying to find ways to honor the Indigenous people who made Thanksgiving and so many other things I benefit from consciously and unconsciously possible. This year, that's learning more about the Wampanoag people whose generosity sparked the first Thanksgiving meal.

As Thrillist states, "Only 16 years after members of the Wampanoag tribe feasted with Pilgrims, they were massacred, leading to a statement from Plymouth Governor William Bradford that for "the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory."" Did you know that? I didn't. You can learn more by listening to the latest episode of All My Relations, a podcast hosted by Indigenous women to explore topics relevant to Native American peoples. You could also read the book Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians but Were Too Afraid to Ask by Anton Treuer, which I just purchased and plan to read soon. I also asked friends online to join me in donating to the First Nations Development Institute, a national, nonprofit, Native American organization whose mission is to strengthen American Indian economies to support healthy Native communities. They believe (and I agree) that only solutions designed by Native peoples, for Native peoples, through the control of their assets and based on their cultural values, will succeed. They also have a perfect 4-star rating on Charity Navigator. You can donate to their organization in many different ways, all explained on their website.

I closed out the birthday and friendsgiving celebrations with my favorite birthday tradition. Although I'm in charge of food for our household the other 364 days of the year, M absolutely spoils me on my birthday by preparing and cooking whatever I request for my birthday. I tend to take full advantage of this arrangement and pick the most difficult and time-consuming recipes I can think of that I would love to have but don't feel like making for myself. This year, I let him postpone the actual cooking day given he had just arrived back in Korea a few days before my actual birthday and needed time to shop for the ingredients. Once the day arrived, though, he did not disappoint. Highlights included lemon blueberry pancakes, baked mac and cheese, almond macarons, stuffed cabbage (pictured above), and chocolate pudding.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

We're Having a Baby!

Surprise! We're having a baby, whom we've affectionately nicknamed #Sbitiny at the excellent suggestion of a couple of our wonderful neighbors and colleagues from Nairobi. We are so excited to expand our little family next spring and look forward to starting a new chapter of our lives. (And I'm grateful not to be hiding my growing belly and other signs of pregnancy from my friends and coworkers anymore! I've never wished I could telework so badly than during that first trimester...)

One of the first questions people ask when we share the good news is whether we're having a boy or a girl. We've decided to keep the sex of our baby a secret, so everyone will have to wait to find out after the birth. (No gender reveal parties for us! After all, it never made sense to me why we call them "gender reveal" parties when what they are revealing is the sex of the baby, not the gender, which is distinct. But I digress!)

Regardless, we are thrilled and busy preparing for our new addition, and we plan to have the baby here in South Korea instead of returning on what we call "OB medevac" to the United States to give birth. We are so grateful to live in a country with world-class medical care, great doctors, and plenty of unique things that made choosing to stay a no-brainer for us. I am also personally thankful for the very recent (i.e., starting October 1, 2020) introduction of parental leave to the Department of State, which will give me three months of paid leave to spend with our newborn.

I'm working on a mix of posts about other things we've been doing, some Foreign Service advice I've given to applicants lately, and more... So stay tuned for both some of the blog's more regularly scheduled programming as well as personal updates coming soon.