Me: "Will I be able to come home for Christmas?"
Ben: "You're not going to want to. You're going to love Christmas in Korea."
It's Christmas evening here in the ROK. My family will be waking up in about an hour and a half to celebrate Christmas morning, but I've already had more Christmas in the past forty-eight hours than it's fair for any one person to have. I'm currently sitting in my new Christmas jammies listening to National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (because it's tradition). I just packed a suitcase full of sundresses and flip flops; JoAnn and I are leaving in nine hours for Indonesia, but I wanted to document my Christmas before any of it slips out of my mind.
Christmas started on Thursday night. After school, I headed with JoAnn up to Seoul Station with people from her church to feed some homeless people and spread Christmas cheer. We met at Lotte Mart (the Korean version of Wal-Mart) to pack up little bags of food before heading out into the station. I met about two dozen people whom I immediately adored, and we set up an assembly line to stuff the food bags. In no time, we were ready to go back out in the station.
Last time I went to Seoul Station, it was still warm outside. We handed out vitamin drinks to people who were hanging out around the station and went back home. Despite the fact that it was below freezing outside, I, for some reason, assumed the activity would be exactly the same. After we packed the bags, however, the group leader started us off in the direction of one of the exits. When we turned the corner, I kind of lost my breath. Right in front of us, in a freezing cold subway exit, was a line of cardboard boxes. Cardboard boxes that were people's homes. The team marched up the middle, preparing to distribute food from the coldest end first, and I numbly followed along. I knew I had signed up for a homeless outreach, but my upper-middle-class suburban mind wasn't ready for what I saw. I know, theoretically, that poverty exists... but I've never actually seen it. I've volunteered at soup kitchens and grocery hand-outs and mitten and glove distributions, but I'd never actually looked at the raw emptiness of being without a home. For me, living in Seoul is a huge blessing. I'm well-paid and I have access to an entire continent that I've always dreamed of exploring. I guess it didn't really occur to me that not everyone in Korea is living out their greatest dreams. We get so consumed in our own problems and concerns that we forget how much we truly have to give thanks for. I'm typing this blog post on a computer that cost more than most of those people will see in half a year; I'm leaving tomorrow for a week of snorkeling and elephant-riding. And people right here in my city are falling asleep tonight in homes made of cardboard on tile floors. God have mercy.
Christmas Eve morning, I woke up embarrassingly late and finally finished my grad school application. After taking ages to get moving, I finally met JoAnn at the GS with noble intentions of running to the bank to exchange our won for... Indonesian moneys. Unfortunately, we arrived at the bank about an hour after it closed, so we instead decided to head to Kyobo and pick out books to take on our trip. In case you're keeping a really strange record of the things I read, I bought Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (I know; I'm in for some deep philosophy). I headed down to the church to practice our Christmas morning play, for which "hilarious" is a gross understatement, before the Christmas Eve candlelight service.
My mom's side of the family celebrates Christmas on Christmas Eve, so my Christmas Eve traditions include a White Elephant gift exchange followed by my uncle and cousin reciting all the lines along with Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation. I've been to one Christmas Eve service that I can remember, but it was a midnight service and all I recall is trying desperately to stay awake. I was actually really excited to participate in a candlelight service with my family at Jubilee, and it was every bit as wonderful as I dreamed. Not being with my parents, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents on Christmas is impossibly hard, but knowing that I'm surrounded by the body of Christ makes it so much easier. Trying to describe it won't do it justice, I'm sure, so I'm not going to taint the experience by assigning it insufficient words. Just know that Christmas carols sung by candlelight while wrapped in the arms of a family of believers is a truly beautiful way to celebrate the eve of our Savior's birth.
I finished the evening at a little restaurant with my fabulous friend Angie, where we each ate an entire pizza and made fools of ourselves by treating a couple of napkins as if they were legitimate magic. I could explain that better and make us sound less crazy, but I kind of like it the way it is.
This morning, I woke up early to make a skype-appearance at my family's Christmas Eve festivities. My bag of random Korean crap was a hit in the gift exchange; my cousin was thoroughly disappointed that my dad stole his "solar-powered monkey on a toilet," but I promised him that I'd send another one when he graduates from grad school in May. I had to leave my family behind and rush to the subway to get to the Geon Children's Home for what turned out to be my favorite part of Christmas. Jubilee sponsors the home every year for Christmas, buying a gift for each of the seventy-seven children who live there. I purchased my gift a few weeks back and signed up to be on the team that delivered them, a team that turned out to be the biggest one who has ever served there on Christmas morning.
The chapel was so packed that most of the Jubilee members who came had to stand along the walls. The kids were stuffed along pews and piled in on people's laps; it was amazing to look out over the room and see so many lives colliding for just a brief moment on a freezing morning in December. My group performed their skit (which got a lot of laughs and strange looks - I'll post some of it for you later), and we set out distributing presents. The volunteers lined up on the stage, each clutching the gift they brought, and the children's names were called out over the microphone. The older kids casually walked to the front, too cool to be excited about presents, but the little ones were overjoyed. When it was my turn at the mic, a little tiny guy, smaller than any of my students, flat-out ran to the front of the room. He threw his hands out and whispered "kamsamnida" before disappearing back into the crowd. By the time I had grabbed my camera and located him in the mess of wrapping paper, he was surrounded by his friends, yanking the ribbons and paper from his gift. I stood off to the side, taking pictures and deeply appreciating the moment.
As soon as he got the wrapping off, he frantically tried to open the plastic on the book. I had been told he wanted a children's picture book, but I picked one that had a toy truck attached to it because what five-year-old just wants a book for Christmas? Everything in that little boy struggled to get at that truck, and when I warily slid into the pew beside him, he handed it over to me for help. I'm pretty sure that truck was better guarded than the crown jewels, but I eventually got it open and handed it to him. He rolled it up and down the pew a few times then used it to "get" my nose. I took it back and drove it across his shoulders to the top of his head while he giggled and curled down in his seat. He grinned at me and said something in Korean, but I couldn't answer him. A precious little girl beside us leaned over and translated for me: "He wants to know if you can speak Korean." My heart broke, and there was nothing I wanted more in that moment than to be able to say yes. I shook my head no and stared down at my feet; he frowned and drove the truck into my nose again. We flipped through the pictures in the books I gave him, laughing at the green noses of the Wemmicks. When the director of the home announced that it was lunch time, Min-Ho thanked me in English and said Merry Christmas before running off, but he didn't make it far before coming back to give me a hug.
I said before I left that the only thing keeping me from bringing home a Korean kid was my aversion to being a single mom... suddenly even that doesn't sound so bad... I know logically that now is a completely impossible time for me to adopt a kid, I mean seriously... but it tore me up to leave that precious little boy there. Mark my words: one day, there will be tiny Korean feet pattering around my house. No child deserves to be without a mom or dad. God, please give Min-Ho a family for Christmas next year. Please.
After we left the Children's Home, our group headed out to the subway. We rode to the part of town where the giant church service was being held, and when we got there, we stopped in a little restaurant for lunch. There were so many of us that we took up almost the entire place, and yet again, I rejoiced in being surrounded by family on Christmas. We rushed through lunch and marched out in the cold to the church, where over fifteen hundred English-speaking Christ-followers had gathered to celebrate our Lord's birth. Just like at the Christmas Eve service, I was overwhelmed with gratitude at the opportunity to worship with people from all over the world, and I'm afraid again that my words will be insufficient. Since my family will be waking up soon, and I'm dying to share Christmas morning with the people I have been missing all day long, I'm going to leave you with this:
"Suddenly, a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.'"
Rejoice! The Savior has been born in Bethlehem! Glory to God in the highest heaven! Our lives are truly blessed.