I visited my buddy Jang-woong and his family this past Christmas Eve. The Kang family lives in a nice apartment in Samseong-dong, not far from where I live. I had prepped a few gifts for JW's kids, to wit:
When I got to JW's apartment, his wife Bo-hyun greeted me, along with their son Ji-an, who's pretty familiar with me at this point. Minji, their tiny daughter, is still shy around me, and she initially pretends I don't exist whenever I come visiting. Eventually, she slowly and grudgingly warms up to me, but it takes a while.
Bo-hyun had bought a Christmas cheesecake in the joshing spirit of "Happy Birthday, Jesus!" Tacky, yet funny, especially with those birthday candles.
The Missus had also prepped snacks, including a truly American-style canapé: crustless white bread, olive, cheese, sliced hot dog, and strawberry jam. I had to laugh. Nachos were also done American college-student-style: American cheese slices placed on Tostitos and microwaved. Of course, if you don't eat the nachos as soon as they're out of the oven, they go back to their original hardness, because American cheese is like that.
Below, a rare shot of Bo-hyun. I apparently caught her in mid-blink. Either that, or she had closed her eyes so as to retreat to her inner happy place, away from the noise of her two kids (who really aren't that noisy).
Lastly, a shot of Ji-an and Minji playing some sort of finger game. Ji-an tried to teach me a game that would be nearly impossible for me to explain here (mainly because I'm still not sure I understand it myself); he played a different finger game with his sis.
Jang-woong insisted that I sing a Christmas carol or two with him. He was in his cups a bit, so he was implacable, and no amount of "I can't sing"s or "Maybe another time"s could dissuade him. I sang in a muted manner, trying to hide my voice under his. (JW is blessed with a deep, resonant voice that would be great for the stage.) Bo-hyun, however, caught the sound of my pipes and declared her astonishment that I could actually hold a tune—apparently another of my deviously hidden talents.
The kids were impatient to open their presents, Ji-an in particular. I asked Ligament, the next day, whether Koreans have a tradition regarding when to open gifts. It varies in the States, but most American families open gifts on Christmas Day, while some allow the kids to open a single gift on Christmas Eve (not in my family). In France, my French family opened all their gifts on Christmas Eve; Christmas Day was reserved for a huge luncheon with salmon as the centerpiece. Ligament laughed and told me that Koreans have no fixed national tradition, which explained what I saw happening at JW's place. The kids were delighted with their gifts, so I was relieved. JW and Bo-hyun looked at me ruefully and told me I shouldn't have spent so much money on the littl'uns; I shrugged and thought, Meh... you only live once.
JW and I hatched a plan as we discussed our fantasies of the future: we want to travel to Europe together to visit several countries—France, Switzerland, other places. We'll stay at my French "brother" Dominique's bed-and-breakfast on the west coast of France; we'll visit my old stomping grounds in Switzerland, and who knows? We might add some trips to Germany, Italy, Spain, and England. I've never been to Spain before. Might be nice.
I had arrived at my friend's place around 10PM because he and his family had spent a large part of the day at their Catholic church. I told myself that I'd stay until just past midnight; I ended up staying, at JW's not-quite-sober insistence, until about 12:30AM. The time eventually came for me to leave, and there was much hugging. By the time I was putting my coat on, little Minji was asleep on the living-room floor while Ji-an was still busy working on his Legos. Ji-an grudgingly put on his coat, then he, JW, and I walked out to the street, in the cold night air. JW hailed a cab for me, and we all hugged again. I was touched in spite of myself. I don't have that many friends in Korea—not that I blame Korea for this, of course: I'm just an aging introvert who has never been that good at forging deep bonds. But JW is a friend from way back, from over twenty years ago. Now he's a manager at a large corporation (POSCO), having spent four years in India with his family. In some ways, he's changed; in other ways, he hasn't. But I'm glad to have him for a friend, and I think he's become a great husband and father. He's making it work, and I wish him and his family the best.