Get this. When a baby is born in Korea, they are welcomed into the world to begin their ‘first year.’ It is merely a semantic difference from the Western tradition of considering a newborn as ‘age zero,’ but needless to say, its an important one when your plane lands and you find out that you are now required to declare your age as one year older than when you took off.
The other age-related fact about Korea that is quite interesting is that the passing of one’s birthday in no way affects their reported age. Regardless of whether you are born in January or December, the coming of New Years Day means that everyone in the country is now a year older – for instance, a baby born this month considers the year 2008 as their first, so when 2009 rolls around, they will naturally be into their ‘second year’ despite being only two months old. Due to my late birthday, I left Canada in September as a fresh faced 21-year-old, and fourteen hours later, I was a healthy 23.
I bring up this subject only because yours truly happened to celebrate a birthday this past Wednesday. The whole experience seemed anti-climactic and a bit backwards, but interestingly enough, it had nothing to do with my own ‘special day’ but rather the one that immediately preceded it. We are well aware that November 11th is a very sombre and respectful day for any country that was involved in The Great War, and as a poppy-wearing Canadian I half expected to do my own trumpet-accompanied moment of reflection and a ritual reading of “In Flanders Fields.” Slight oversight: this country had nothing to do with World War One, and ironically, the eleventh day of the eleventh month happens to be the Korean version of Valentine’s Day. It’s called “Pepero Day,” and gets its name from the popular chocolate-covered bread sticks that Korean children snack on (the Japanese version – Pocky – is the exact same product, which you can get at Loblaws in Canada). Students come to school and exchange Pepero gifts with their friends and their special sweetheart, and unlike our V-Day, it is mostly celebrated by school children but not adults. The holiday apparently started in 1994, and it originated because the date ‘11/11’ looks like four Pepero sticks standing beside each other. That’s creative… I can’t wait for the ninth of June.
My point about the eleventh is this: my birthday typically follows one of the more joyless and contemplative days on the national calendar, and I find that I benefit from the ‘Post-Remembrance Day Effect’ and tend to annually receive an atypical, enthusiastic release of celebration as a result. Not this year. Instead, I now know exactly what those suckers feel like who have their birthdays painfully close to a ‘fun holiday’ like Christmas, Halloween, or Flag Day (I say the word ‘suckers’ with kindness, as my step-mother and little sister happen to be born on the 24th and 27th of December, and my brother on Canada Day). The individual day gets thwarted by the close proximity to collective happiness. This fact aside, I had a fantastic Korean birthday thanks to the kindness of my friends and co-teachers, so no complaints here. As a bonus, November 12th began here for me in Korea and finished in Canada forty-three hours later, which translates into almost two full days of birthday wishes. Now that is some math I can support.
This week wasn’t my first holiday-themed culture-clash experience since arriving here. Two weeks ago, I prepared my special Halloween lesson for my students, complete with video clips from The Simpsons’ ‘Treehouse of Horror’ series and Mr. Bean’s ill-fated trip to a scary movie. One snag. Most students had no idea what Halloween was. I was bummed at first, because I thought I had put together a lesson plan that truly dwarfed the annual ‘recite the Monster Mash and eat Rockets’ version that I was subjected to through grade school (listen to the lyrics of that song and tell me that this so-called ‘graveyard smash’ isn’t depicting someone’s weird drug hallucination). I found my inspiration by going above and beyond, and while wearing a knight’s costume designed for four-year-olds, I tried to demonstrate the real meaning of Halloween – fun – to my students through angry monologues stolen from ‘300’ and ‘Gladiator’. They laughed, I laughed, and we found common ground once again.
A couple of quick things before I sign off. I have received a couple of emails from friends telling me that while they were enjoying my commentary on life and teaching, they had learned nothing from my blog about what I am actually doing here in Korea. Do you go to bars often? Have you gotten hopelessly lost without the ability to communicate? Have you eaten anything ridiculous? Any trips of note, or interesting sights you have seen? The answer to each of these questions is yes, and I pledge to prepare a list of some bizarre or funny experiences I have actually had in Korea for next week. My bad.
Finally, I have had some people ask me if they could send me a package, or whether I could send them hilarious Korean things in the mail. Listen closely. I make a pledge here and now to anyone reading: if you send me something in the mail, I guarantee you that I will send you a package with some hilarious Korean souvenirs in return. This applies to anyone, so if you are interested, I urge you to get creative and surprise me with a quintessentially Canadian (or American, or British, or South African, or whatever country you happen to be in) gift and I will return the favour. Everyone likes mail, especially if it traveled very far to reach you.
Sean Hebert - Sannam Middle School
1216 MaeTan 2Dong, Young Tong Gu
Suwon City, Gyeonggi Province
Post Code# 442-372