Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” –-Melody Beattie
As an American expat here in South Korea, I miss out on my country’s holidays such as the Fourth of July and Memorial Day. But Thanksgiving is the one I miss most after Christmas, not because of its bloody, tragic history but despite it.
Like most Americans who have the luxury of turning away from Christopher Columbus and all he wrought, I try and focus on friends and family on Thanksgiving. There are so many great personal memories from this 398-year-old holiday, such as my mother’s insanely delicious food---baked ham with a brown sugar glaze, peppery collard greens, three cheese macaroni, and sweet potato pie. Oh my…The Sweet Potato Pies!
I cherish my tween years helping my mother prep and cook that scrumptious food but relish 1985, when my teenage feminist frustrations boiled over like a pot of neglected potatoes. Annoyed that I had been called from my bed at the crack of dawn, a long day of chopping and stirring ahead of me, I declared a boycott on kitchen duty. If my brother was allowed to roll out at whatever time the mood struck and then proceed to drape himself over the couch along with my uncles and male cousins and watch football until dinner was ready and my mother fixed him and every other man in the house a plate, I was damned if I was going to be a part of the patriarchal nonsense! Three years later, during my second semester of college, I would attend my first Planned Parenthood march.
When I got older, Thanksgiving became about volunteering and "orphan" dinners made up of friends who couldn’t or didn’t want to go home for the holiday. With the chosen family of my twenties, thirties, and early forties in Detroit and NYC, I hopped from apartment to apartment lining my stomach with heavy foods, pre-gaming before partying to all hours of the night.
Obviously, Thanksgiving is not a thing here in South Korea, although there are English speaking churches around the country that offer dinner and fellowship to American expats. I attended one meal my first year here and it was fine but lacked that stateside magic. It felt more like an elaborate AA meeting.
But in the spirit of the occasion, I offer you a brief list of the Korea-themed things I’m thankful for this Thanksgiving the Year of Our Lord 2019.
If you’re in America, Happy Thanksgiving! If you’re a global citizen with roots in the States, Cheers! 건배! ¡Salud! À la vôtre! Cincin!
1. 목욕탕 (Mog-yog-tang) This is a Korean style bathhouse. The Hermit Kingdom is rapidly modernizing, and their new buildings are just like those you’d find in the West, but historically traditional houses (기와집) didn’t have bathrooms much less bathtubs. So, a ritual of group bathing developed, especially around family-oriented holidays, where families go to the public bathhouse to wash and commune before offering respect to their ancestors.
In separate facilities, men and boys, women and girls use dry and wet steam rooms, hot, warm, and cold baths. After a long week of wrangling children, when those mysterious aches and pains suddenly manifest, there is nothing better than slipping into one of the three bathhouses within walking distance of my apartment.
Most saunas also offer body scrubs and massages for a nominal price. And speaking of price, the average 목욕탕costs around $5 and you can stay as long as you like. Once I got past the nudity requirement and usually being the only foreigner, I felt like I had found a place that had alluded me all my life. I am obsessed and deeply grateful.
2. Supportive Bosses- I am a nester and I have been fortunate to only hold down a few jobs. When I like a place or my coworkers or the money I tend to stay. I stay even when the boss themselves may not be so great. My boss at my last job before my move abroad had his moments but overall sucked. My bosses at my first and so far, only job in S. Korea are awesome. Directors Mr. Lee and Ms. Kelly and Assistant Director Benica are kind, supportive, hardworking, and genuinely decent people. After reading terrifying stories in myriad Facebook groups before I made the jump, after 12 years in the bad place, I landed a unicorn job and I am grateful.
3. The Kindness of the Korean People Much like the stories I heard about teaching jobs, I had heard some pretty rough stuff about the Korean people. The stories ran the gamut from petty thievery to bald-faced racism. And I was prepared for the worse after applying to 36 jobs before landing one. I’ve lived in my little town for 2 ½ years and I still hear the stories, but I can happily report that I have literally received two shady looks and zero meanness from any of the Koreans I have interacted with. It’s been the exact opposite.
People have gone out of their way to help me whether it’s with directions, ordering food, or drying my back in my beloved bathhouse. Cab drivers call restaurants for me in Seoul. People walk me to bus stops in Changwon. Old ladies share their iced coffee and steamed eggs with me in the steam room---completely naked I might add! Although my beloved NYC can be a hard city, I have never bought into the idea that it’s a mean place. But I have to admit, South Korea has spoiled me with the kindness of strangers. And I am grateful.
4. Cheap, yummy food- I came to Korea with the arrogance of a New Yorker. It didn’t take long for me to hang my foodie head in shame. I thought I knew Korea food. Turns out I know a smidgen about Thai, Filipino, and Vietnamese food and jack about Korean.
And this is despite proudly introducing my friends Bruce and Michael to the wonders of K-Town and Korean BBQ. Korean food with its summer favorite 삼계탕 (Samgyetang—a whole chicken in a ginseng broth) to the mealy, soft 순대 (Soon-day---a type of blood sausage) to the ubiquitous spicy rice cake snack Tteokbokki, I didn’t have a clue about what Korean’s ate after 치막 (Chicken and beer), but I’m learning. And thankfully, Korea is a soup country, so I am grateful.
5. My Washing Machine I spent 1991 to 2017 hording quarters and lugging over-sized bags of dirty clothes to the laundry mat. My studio apartment in Sacheon came with a little patio and its own washing machine. And I am deeply grateful.
6. Bathrooms- Even before I was a woman of a certain age, I peed a lot. A lot. And it has only gotten worse with time. I don’t know if it’s the older population or just the hallmark of an advancing society, but South Korea has mad bathrooms. And not only are they plentiful, 9 times out of 10 they are clean and stocked and I am grateful.
7. Cheap and Convenient Buses As a non-driver but an avid explorer, the discovery of the cheap, abundant, and fairly navigable intercity bus system was a truly unexpected boon. I am a ride or die supporter of the NYC subway system---Yes, I am well aware of all that is wrong---but I blame mismanagement on its failings. As the only 24-hour subway in the world which transports 4.3 million people a day, it deserves to be heralded. That said, the Korean Intercity bus system takes you all over the country for as little as $35. Some of my favorite places such as Tongyeong and Busan cost a mere $5 and $7 respectively. The world is my oyster at these prices, and I am grateful.
8. Busan- Speaking of the world as my oyster. I get the rural, the urban, and the coastal with this awesome city. It’s only an hour and a half away by bus (See Number 7).
It’s got a great subway system, half a dozen beaches including Haeundae and Gwangalli, traditional markets, landscapes, and temples, as well as Western bars. It’s just enough of home to keep homesick at bay and I am grateful.
9. Walking and Embracing Low Maintenance Three months after I moved to Asia, my gluteus maximus tore. Other than for work, I was confined to my bed…for 6 months. It took a full 12 months for the pain to truly go away and for me to feel safe hitting the road, but I’m back clocking 6-8 miles walks. I try and take a different route every two weeks or so, although I have my favorites. On these long rambles, I think about the past week, the next week, and the future.
On one of these walks, on my favorite coastal road, with the mountains ahead of me, a tributary leading to the Korean Strait beside me, I took a deep breath and marveled at how little I have and how little I needed. I wasn’t super high maintenance back home, but I lived the NYC life of new restaurants, clubs, theater, and art openings and I loved it. I was the go-to gal for a new restaurant opening or art installation and then I moved abroad. I am slowly learning where to go for live theater and music---even if it is all in Hangul (Korean), after all, music is universal. When I’m not working, for the most part, I spend my time writing, reading, watching movies, walking, and listening to political podcasts, and I am grateful.
10. Burgeoning bravery- Everything makes me nervous. I am afraid of everything…or at least I used to be and I am grateful