While Christmas is stealing the picture everywhere in Korea with Christmas trees, Christmas music and Christmas gift sets all over, it has limited significance to the Koreans. Those who identify with Christianity may go to church and have a small family celebration, but the big picture remains that Christmas in Korea is reserved for friends and couples.
More important is the so-called 송년회 (songnyeonhwe), meaning end-of-the-year party. Each office, each group of friends, and any other gathering you can possibly think of will have such a party at the end of the year.
I had such a party with my Korean best friend yesterday. It wasn’t really planned, in fact, we had just agreed to hang out late in the afternoon and have dinner together that day, but those plans were changed, when I received a text around lunch suggesting that we meet an hour later and instead have a proper end-of-the-year party with good food and (of course) drinks. I hesitated a little, remembering our last end-of-the-year party, which I still can’t remember how I got home from (my friend maintains having walked/carried me home), but I barely recall it. I do remember a splitting headache the next day, though. Damn you, soju! In this case, however, I was in no position to let things get this far out of hand. I’m currently teaching winter school at Sogang, which requires me to be fresh, ready and bright-eyed at 9 am every morning for a 3-hour long marathon lecture. We still ended up having a blast though!
Meeting up at Sinchon station, we scouted the neighborhood for decent places to eat and finally decided on the Korean-Italian fusion restaurant Seoga&Cook. The perfect compromise for two friends who almost started fighting over whether to eat pizza or pork cutlet.
G: Pizza?! We had that last time!
S: No, we didn’t last time we had pork cutlet!
G: Oh, I could eat that again!
S: Eww, that’s too heavy! I want something with vegetables!
G: Why are you always like that?
S: Like what? By the way, you’re paying this time!
The food was good, a little on the heavy side (yes, the vegetable part was my line) but decent. We ordered a rice salad (my choice) and a meat-bomb pork platter (his choice) and shared it Korean-style.
Then we went to our usual beer place for drinks and chatted for a couple of hours. We’ve known each other for over two years now, but still continue to learn new stuff about each other. This time I learned that he knew the lyrics to several of the songs from “The Sound of Music”! Since we had the bar to ourselves it didn’t seem weird that we then started singing together. Being able to do so is seriously one of the many things that I love about Korea.
When we were about to leave at a reasonable hour since I had the aforementioned early class in the morning, we discovered a dart board. Well, we weren’t just going to let it hang there, so we got the last round of beers (for the second time) and took turns making fools out of ourselves with the darts.
Finally back out in the cold, we passed a 포장마차 (pojangmacha) which is a street cart selling hot snacks. All the dart and beer had made us hungry again, so we decided to head inside for one last late-night bite before going home. I ordered 떡뽁이 (ddeokbbokki), spicy rice cakes in chili sauce, which we shared, and he then added a couple of 오징어 취김 (ojingeo twigim), deep-fried octopus arms, to the order. I always find the latter to be surprisingly tasty even though I hate to admit it, and he was kind enough to share.
It was past eleven when I was finally home, and I just went straight to bed. I had feared that my head would hurt in the morning, but today I woke up 40 minutes before my alarm went off feeling rested, refreshed and still full of laughter from yesterday. I was full of energy for my 3-hour lecture and even enjoyed sitting through a lengthy end-of-the-year lunch with my Korean colleagues.
For those planning on taking the TOPIK exam (and acing it), a word of advice. Once you tell your colleagues that you’ve reached level 6, the occasional English conversation will be a thing of the past. For the last week, all my colleagues have been speaking to me strictly in Korean, and today was no exception. 1.5 hours of intense Korean during lunch. That made my head hurt.
As for nosy friends/former Korean teachers, who want to know your scores in the different disciplines of the TOPIK exam, I find this phrase to be particularly helpful: 너나 잘해! (neona chalhae!) meaning “mind your own business”. Whenever I say this to my friend it usually makes him laugh so hard that he forgets what he was even asking in the first place, and you are free to move on to other topics. If you decide to confide in anyone that you did make it to level 6 but maybe not by the widest of margins, Koreans generally use this phrase 턱걸이로 합격했어요 (Teokgeoriro hapgyeokhaesseoyo), meaning I passed, but just barely.
Who cares, passing is passing!
새해 복 많이 받으세요~ (saehae bok mani badeseyo) Happy new year, everyone!