Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas in Gwanghwamun/Chunggyecheon, Missing Family, and Stupid Hats

Met my friend Cecilia yesterday, and she introduced her boyfriend to me.

You may remember her from here:

Well, her boyfriend a a seriously stellar guy. I like him a lot... and I'm fussy about who dates my surrogate sisters and brothers... but he's a class act, really supportive, and really sweet. Awesome.


too cute.

Took pictures of the Gwanghwamun area, and also some video. I'd also taken a bus down to Kangnam to see what it had to offer, but Kangnam was pants compared to Jongno/Gwanghwamun/City Hall/Chunggyecheon. (Pants is UK slang for "garbage") - somebody told me Kangnam was way cooler these days that it had been the last time I went down there, so I've even refrained from slamming Kangnam at every chance I get, on the off chance it actually WAS cooler... no such luck. Still too crowded, still shiny but with no feeling, still a poor man's Shinjuku. Sorry, Kangnam. You're going to have to try harder, and I don't mean installing more LCD screens.

I gave Cecilia the camera and she got these candid shots of me.



Video Turtle Boat in front of Admiral Lee in Gwanghwamun Plaza.

Gwanghwamun Plaza




Jongno, on the other hand, was in fine form.



Every Christmas, there's a competition between the department stores to put on the nicest Christmas light display.

Lotte Department Store and Lotte Hotel were unusually weak this year... Namdaemun's Shinsegye spanked Lotte all over the place.


The CitiBank christmas tree in Chunggyecheon plaza was almost as big as the red-blue poo, and it changed color, so it's best seen on the video (see above). It was really nice, though.




Lotte Young Plaza also beat out Lotte Department Store/Lotte Hotel.


Lotte Dept store was meh.

City Hall's Christmas tree was nowhere near this nice; the rest of City Hall Plaza was mostly weak sauce, too.


Outside the Press Building between Gwanghwamun and City Hall


Also along that stretch: the Haechi made his first Christmas appearance. In Seoul, the Haechi comes at night to give good children Christmas gifts like ice cream cakes and stupid hats, and he give bad children's parents municipal tax notices, and arrests them for demonstrating in public spaces.



Chunggyecheon rocked, though.









I also went around that area with my handsome buddy Evan, two nights earlier, so these pictures are from two separate nights. He's a great guy, and he has a message for you.

I already linked Brian's post about dumb Korean Christmas music and stupid hats... the comments to that post are a veritable bloodbath that boils down to a few people saying we have to respect the ways other cultures observe holidays, and if Korea wants to create a commercial monstrosity with stupid hats, that's their prerogative, and the other side saying, "it's all well and good to be a cultural relativist, but it's still jarring and maybe sad to see Christmas observed in a way that is so distant from the warm family holiday we remember from our childhood" (or even from the Christmas we see in movies like A Christmas Story, It's A Wonderful Life, and Love Actually... which is huge in Korea, maybe partly because it reinforces that Christmas is a couple holiday to Koreans.

What I'll say is this: I was never a big fan of commercial Christmas anywhere (put me in the Charlie Brown camp -- ever notice how preachy "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is?), but the fact that Christmas is not only mostly divorced from the old religious roots (didn't see a single nativity scene in two nights of walking around, haven't heard more than a few sacred carols on the Christmas music playlists in Korean shops), but ALSO divorced from the Christmas we remember from back home -- as far and away the number one family holiday of the year -- is jarring, and it sharpens the twinge of homesickness, or the sting of culture shock, for most of the month of December, for many of us. I always miss my family more at Christmas, and my students and Korean friends don't get that unless I ask how they'd feel spending Chuseok away from home, where nobody knows what shikke or songpyun is. The only way I can explain the importance of Christmas to Westerners is to say "Imagine Chusok, Sollal, and Children's Day, all in one day. That's Christmas to me."

Being critical of Christmas cakes and silly hats is a legitimate response to that cognitive dissonance -- "It looks like Christmas... but it isn't Christmas like I remember/long for it..." and frankly, I sympathize. It wouldn't much surprise me if the people attacking Brian in the comments are simply exhibiting their OWN way of coping with the far-from-home culture shock, assuming they ARE far from home, by biding no negativity, or reacting to it so defensively.

And after all that preachifying, here's the best picture of the night:

Saw reflection of blue christmas lights in metal sign. favorite hidden treasure. Whoever can find where I took this, and send me a similar picture, or post it on their blog, wins a cookie.


Now I'm off: I'll be on the road a bit, so I might not post again until next week. If you really miss me, you can read me in Korean Newsweek (assuming you read Korean) or the English original (at Roboseyo), and also at Wonju Wife, talking about why I still believe in Santa Claus.


Brian said...

Nice work on that Newsweek article. I hadn't noticed the original post.

I may add this to the Christmas post I did . . . but when I think of Christmas in Korea I am reminded of the "uncanny valley." Here's what wikipedia says:
The uncanny valley hypothesis holds that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The "valley" in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot's lifelikeness.

No, I'm not saying Koreans are humanoids. What I mean is, I think we're well-adjusted enough to enjoy and appreciate Korean holidays. But in the case of Korean Christmas---or Korean coffee, or Korean "Western" food, or whatever---the uncanny valley comes into play. A lot of the features of Christmas are aped---lights, holiday music, snowmen, etc.---but the result isn't affection but revulsion because we focus more on what's "wrong" than what's familiar.

What's puzzling about CHristmas in Korea is that it seems to have no . . . well, no reason for it. Like you said, the religious roots aren't there. Fair enough, back home many people don't consider it a sacred holiday anymore. Hell, when I think of Christmas back home I think of trees, decorations, lights . . . and of course dinner with family, singing Christmas carols, watching the snow, and all that stuff.

But Korean Christmas doesn't even harken back to THAT. So I ask what I think is a legitimate question: what's the point of Christmas in Korea? I don't think it's "irrational," as AK says, to be bothered by our most important holiday being reduced to snowman hats, Christmas cake, and painful performances of Jinglebell Lock.

Roboseyo said...

Yeah. I actually retro-dated the newsweek thing, and posted it just today. Thanks.

I think the uncanny valley is a good description.

Mark said...

Merry Christmas!
This is my first Christmas in Seoul. It was 9pm, and I suddenly got the urge to decorate my room with tinsel and what not, for more of the Christmas feeling I get every year. So I went to Emart at Sindorim, below Techno Mart at 10pm. I searched the whole shop.. Nothing, barely any Christmas items to be seen. I felt so down after that.

조안나 said...

Yes, I agree that North of the Han river is far superior to south of the Han river. It looks beautiful now with all the lights, I wish I were in Seoul now to see it all. Maybe they'll leave the lights up one more month so I can see them when I come back...

iCopter said...

quam delicia. Gratius transeo proxumum annum.