Thanksgiving in Cheongyang, South Korea

By: Kelly Riley

I love the holiday of Thanksgiving, not so much for the hypocritical history but for the family time and the copious amounts of delicious food. Most people who know the Frouple, know that Rachel and I love to cook! Holidays are no exception. But fate had decided that even though we would be living in the same country, she would not be living a mere ten minute drive down the street. Instead she would be a 1 hour bus ride, 20 min subway ride, and then another 2 hour bus ride across the country. So Thanksgiving fell to my friend Nadia and me.

Nadia is one of my closest friends in my tiny Korean city of Cheongyang. She too is American, and like most people I value in my life, we randomly break out into song and dance together whenever someone accidently says a song lyric in conversation. This is what true friendships are based on after all. Our other close friends in town are Korean and South African and neither of those cultures had yet to experience a true American Thanksgiving. This year we would remedy that.

When you think Thanksgiving you think turkey, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce…Korea thinks…what’s that? You know what else Korea doesn’t believe in? Ovens… Luckily Nadia and a couple other foreigners in town had bought toaster ovens. Challenge 1 of Thanksgiving in Korea: Lack of original ingredients, Challenge 2 of Thanksgiving in Korea: Let’s roast 4 different birds and assorted other goodies…in toaster ovens.

I love my city of Cheongyang. When I would travel throughout Korea and meet new people they would ask where I live and teach. I would tell them Cheongyang and most Koreans would ask me to repeat that, thinking they hadn’t heard me correctly. Upon confirmation they would then laugh and ask me how it was living in the smallest city in Korea. I don’t really feel like I am missing too much in my city, except the Korean Walmart, which goes by the name of Emart, and the Korean dollar store which goes by the name of Daiso (다이소). Fun fact, in Korean, the letter ㄷ, is a cross between the sounds of t/d. So when you get into a taxi and ask them to bring you to Daiso, it takes a minute for you to figure out the perfect mix of Daiso/Taiso to get your point across.

In order to shop for our large Thanksgiving meal, we would have to travel by bus for 30 minutes to the next largest city, Boreyeong. Here was a land of tall buildings and cheap goods, exactly what we needed as our originally small meal had expanded to close to 15 attendees. We decided to wait to have our feast until Saturday, the closest day off we would have to the holiday. Getting off at 5pm on the actual date of Thanksgiving and cooking a giant meal was just too daunting a task. So instead, on the Thursday of Thanksgiving Nadia and I decided to get all of our shopping done.

The earliest bus we could catch from Cheongyang left at 5:57pm, and it usually takes 30 minutes, as I said, to reach Boreyeong. But this beautiful Thursday was also the First Snow of the season. That morning I opened the door of my house to see my porch coated in a blanket of white, my land lord’s field shrouded beyond recognition, and the mountains surrounding my town draped in the gorgeous snow. It was the most snow I had ever seen in my life, having come from Florida. So I shut my door and finished getting ready to head to school. About 20 minutes later I opened my door, and the sky had opened up, launching flurry after flurry. I put on my measly Florida boots and braced myself, stepping outside. Suddenly my vision was blurred by flakes of snow. I pulled my hood up, and tried to walk down my stairs. After slipping and nearly falling the whole way down, I carefully took each step towards my school. Each one was treacherous as boots made in Florida are in no way equipped to handle ice. I could feel my shoulders being coated in snow, my hood weighing down ever so slightly as it piled on. I thought maybe I should have brought an umbrella, but it was snow not rain, right? I turned the corner to see my students all with umbrellas. Oh…I sure had a lot to learn.

I finally reached the front of the school, and stood for a moment trying to process what was happening to me. I was beside two of my students who looked at me with concern. “Oh my god…” was all I managed and they began to laugh. I followed their lead and tried to shake as much snow and ice off of me as I could. It was still coming down so heavily, and wouldn’t stop until sometime the next day, as I would discover.

Later that day, the school accountant found me. We had gone to lunch one day a month ago, and he had asked me about my hometown in America. At the time it was about 50 F, so I tried to explain this was about the coldest weather I was used to. I then told him it never snows in Florida, which seemed quite crazy to him. So as the first snow came, he made it a point to come see me. He had a huge smile on his face, and all he had to say was, “Kelly! Snow!” He was so excited for me. At least someone was.

Later that day, Nadia and I boarded the bus for Boreyeong. Nadia had seen snow before since she came from Virginia. But as we drove she confessed this was the worst she had ever seen. We both panicked a moment thinking that this was only the beginning. The buses, taxis and cars in Korea like to travel at breakneck speed, and tend to ignore the breaks while turning corners. But the snow was so heavy the driver could barely see down the road. I know this because we stupidly sat in the front. Can you say heart attack?

When we finally reached Boreyeong, we decided we wanted to have dinner, since it was the official date of the holiday after all. This would mean we would have to miss the final bus back to Cheongyang and would then have to take a taxi. We spotted a pizza place nearby, and made a mad dash for it, screaming as we nearly fell down, much to some older Korean men’s amusement. I was used to it by now, most of my reactions to things seemed to amuse them.

Since we lived in a small city, most of the people we met in town didn’t speak English, so we had to learn enough Korean to order food. Also luckily most Korean menus had pictures, so pointing and charades was also a viable option. As Nadia turned to order a pizza from our waiter, he began to speak in English to us. Nadia’s eyes went wide when we remembered we weren’t in Cheongyang anymore. He told us we could get a pepperoni pizza, with cheese stuffed in the crust. It’s hard to explain just how magical this was to us. You can get this at any old Pizza Hut in America. But in Korea…your crust is made from rice, there’s corn and almonds as standard toppings and they always give you honey to dip your pizza in. Happy Thanksgiving to us that we were able to have the most American pizza we had ever encountered in Korea.

After a scrumptious meal, we spent nearly an hour in Daiso buying pots, plastic forks, floor cushions, and every other piece of equipment we would need for the feast. We checked out and had two giant bags filled to the max of items. Then we tried to catch a taxi to Emart. In Korea, age determines just about everything. We stood on the side of the road with a high school boy, desperately waving at cabs. When one finally pulled over, an Ajusshi (older Korean man) walked up and jumped in. Rude in America? Yes. In Korea, he is older so he gets the cab. The lack of taxis driving past us should have been a sign for the troubles to come later.

We finally reached Emart and we rushed to use their restrooms. Koreans do NOT flush toilet paper down the toilet. You are supposed to throw your used toilet paper in the basket beside the toilet. This has to do with their low flow sewage system or something. But to help alleviate the use of paper, most toilets are equipped with bedays, you know those little water fountains for your butts? The instructions and buttons are all labeled in Korean so more often than not it’s best to avoid them. The toilets at Emart were not so clearly labeled. As I did my business in the stall beside hers, I hear Nadia exclaim something. She sounded surprised, and then I hear water erupting and then Nadia began screaming in panic. Apparently she had turned on the beday and it launched a steady stream across the stall, hitting her, her backpack and spraying straight into the door. She was hollering for me to help her but I couldn’t even stand up I was laughing so hard. When I finally emerged, she stood forlornly by the sink, half her jacket covered in water and her backpack drying unceremoniously on the counter. Beware of bedays!

We then spent over another hour gathering everything we needed for the meal. My most exciting purchase was a big, silver pot which I would boast about to everyone. Was this what it was like to be an adult? Getting excited about new cook ware? Nadia and I even bought snow boots, and this was honestly the most important purchase of the evening.

After we checked out, Nadia brought us over to this boxing station where she packed all of our food into a box larger than my whole torso. We turned to look at our other purchases, which filled a whole cart. On top of that we had the bags from Daiso. There was no way we could carry this over to the bus station to catch a taxi. Nadia decided she would go over to the station, get a cab and come back for me while I waited with our two carts of stuff. She ran off into the snow, disappearing in the thick of it.

I waited for a while, awkwardly as the lights in the store began to shut off. Finally a Korean woman came to lock the doors and spotted me. She spoke to me in Korean and said what I imagine to be, “We’re closing, I’m going to need you to leave.” I told her I was waiting for a taxi and she looked at me like I was silly. I told her “Taksi…chingu…” and motioned in the direction Nadia had gone. We finally reached an understanding and she told me I could keep the carts with me until my friend arrived with the taxi. So I stood out in the cold with my two carts, as snow fell steadily on top of me and all the lights in the store went out.

I spotted what looked like an upright polar bear lumbering through the snow, arms waving wildly. It was Nadia and she had no taxi with her. Thanks to the snow…there weren’t many people out and therefore not many taxis and none were at the bus station. She joined me by the carts as we stood in the snow, all alone, far from our home with more purchases than we knew how to carry and not enough Korean to know how to call a cab.

“We’re not gonna panic…we’re not gonna panic,” Nadia said.

“We need to call Henny…” I replied. Henny was our Korean friend back in Cheongyang, and though he had a car, it would take him over 40 minutes to reach us as we stood in the snow. Nadia called him, and he told us to hold tight, he would call us a cab. We were saved!!

A taxi drove down the street past us and Nadia went sprinting after it. It luckily turned around and the driver even helped us put all of our belongings into the trunk and back seat. I showed him my home address which I thankfully had my co teacher write in Hangeul (Korean) for me and off we went towards home.

Like most Thanksgiving meals, the cooking began the night before. Luckily, Jenna (a foreigner teacher from South Africa) lived next door to Nadia. She has lived in Cheongyang for close to 3 years and is an avid cook. She let us raid her kitchen for utensils that we foolishly had left at my house. We managed to complete 4 dishes that night and left the rest for ourselves to manage the next day.

Saturday afternoon, Henny drove to Nadia’s and helped her and Nam (another foreign teacher from Austrailia) gather the food we cooked the night before and loads of other supplies and bring them over to my house. I have the biggest apartment of any of the teachers in Cheongyang so my place was where we would celebrate. My kitchen is huge by Korean standards but by American standards it’s a small apartment kitchen. We somehow managed to fit two ovens on my table, and three cutting boards on the counter and table. We had my two gas burners going, and another oven in the hall, plus a portable stove beside it.

We put Henny and Nam to work peeling potatoes, making bread crumbs and cutting cheese for the macaroni. Somehow Nam had lived his whole life not knowing how to peel a potato, it was a learning experience for us all! Rachel arrived around 3 pm and finally the whole team was assembled. The guests all began to arrive as we cranked out the meals, rotating between the kitchen and the hall where more often than not I sent Rachel to cook. Bless her!

At around 7pm we finally completed the meal and set up the buffet line. The first to eat were Anna’s two children. They are Korean and this was their first Thanksgiving. I’m proud to say they quickly returned for seconds. I paused everyone from eating as I’m known to do to carry out a Thanksgiving tradition, saying what we are all thankful for. Since we are all English teachers, we all had something wonderful and sometimes long to say. The most heartfelt was Feroza, a teacher from South Africa who worked for Anna, the owner of a local Hagwon (private English school). Recently Feroza had torn her ACL and was in a cast recovering from surgery. She began to thank Anna for being there for her as not only the most understanding boss but also an amazing friend. They cried and hugged and of course I had to take a picture. Leave it to a South African and a Korean to make it truly feel like Thanksgiving. I even had the children say what they were thankful for, telling them it would be their English final.

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When it was my turn to say what I was thankful for, I told them that I was on the bus with Nadia a while back, taking one of those silly personality quizzes online. The question asked me whether or not I often feel restless. I paused and considered this. Back in America, working at a desk or dealing with monotonous everyday things, I would often long to be somewhere beautiful and doing something meaningful. If the quiz had asked me this 5 months ago I would have answered often. But now, living in this beautiful country, surrounded by all these wonderful people who are so different but all possess a certain quality that would take them far away from their home country to a foreign land…I feel like I am exactly where I am supposed to be. That’s what I am thankful for.

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