The month of January [has just passed] and I must say – last month was good to me.
I’ve re-righted my habits like eating more healthy foods. I’ve used the shit out of my slow cooker to stew vegetables, beans, and lentils. I’ve also resumed finishing my meals with more mixed nuts and fruits.
I also embrace being a bit busier [at work].
December was once my favorite month of the year. It’s Christmas time. It’s my birthday. The Sacramento air was cold, but not unbearably so. Scents of baked turkey and prime rib wafted through my childhood home as my family and I chowed down with Swedish bulla rolls and salad.
But since moving to Korea, December has descended to one of my least favorite months.
For one, I give fewer and fewer fucks about my birthday. As I age year after year (I turned 28 last month), birthdays don’t inspire the same excitement in me. I was once so excited around my birthday as friends and family wished me well, gave me a present or two, and treated me to a meal out.
I feel like an old fuddy-duddy. I’m sure some of you read this and flip me the bird.
“You’re not old!”
But since I crossed age 25, I feel myself cresting the hill of birthday fever.
On top of that, being away from family for a third straight Christmas takes a toll.
As I walk the streets of Yeosu, I notice Christmas trees in local cafes and shopping malls. English and Korean Christmas music erupts from street speakers. But the spirit is not the same. Chrismas is a minor holiday here.
In fact, Christmas is more of a couples’ holiday. It’s one of their five different versions of Valentine’s Day. Korea loves couples and couples love each other. Single people get blue Christmases.
This also makes domestic travel difficult around Christmastime.
If I try to book a hotel or motel this time of year, they are almost always fully booked. Unmarried couples, many of whom live in their respective parents’ homes, need to “enjoy the holiday spirit” with mistletoe by the fire on a bearskin rug. So accommodations grow scarce.
I also find that work becomes slow (if not nonexistent) during December. This proves to be both a blessing and a curse.
On one hand, semesters can grind me down – especially through October and November. Things get hectic. So I initially welcomed “deskwarming” break at Namak High or at JIEI.
For Korean public school native English teachers, “deskwarming” is a phenomenon that often occurs in December, January, February, and parts of July in which classes are not in session, but teachers still show up to work. Sometimes we are the only ones at work. Even the security guard takes the day off. This is because foreigners have a genetic predisposition to hard work and punctuality. We are also allergic to vacations.
Oftentimes, school holiday periods exceed the number of allocated paid leave days on our contracts. As a result, many must come to work for eight hours to do as much or as little they please. If you want full pay do eight hours a day.
We can sit at our computers, watch Netflix, or even sleep for eight hours. Our presence is all schools ask of us.
Sometimes, I enjoy deskwarming. It is a useful time to assess past lessons, design new lessons, find new activity ideas, read some books, get my personal growth on lock, or study Korean (I studied thousands of flashcards during deskwarming days).
But after three or four days of deskwarming, I grow tired. I lose my mind. I feel unmotivated, unmoored, untethered. I lack purpose.
Why am I here? Why does no one visit me? Is it something I said?
It’s brutal. After day four, I am desperately ready for students to come back so I can step back into the classroom and do my thing. I’m a teacher. I want to teach. Planning is great, but I only do it for the sake of teaching.
This past December, the Korean teacher-trainees toured England most of the month – teaching demo classes, playing the marimba at Stonehenge, eating haggis in Scotland, or eating baguettes in Paris, and looking up as Parisians looked down their noses, among other things.
So I had loads of prep time to design lessons for the next session and enjoy a break. It was great – for about four days. I even got to watch some Seahawks football! But I quickly grew restless and tilted off my axis.
We also have many departmental and institute-wide dinners out, where we slam back alcohol with barbecued meat or raw fish – a traditional Korean workplace ritual known as 외식 (“waysheek”)
On the surface, these meals are great. I love impressing Koreans with my hard-won boozing abilities and watching my supervisors’ faces turn various shades of red. But the liquor and animal-heavy meals easily tempt me and disrupt my discipline and goals.
Christmas and New Years’ parties also got in my way. Don’t get me wrong. I had a wonderful New Year’s Eve. I donned a friend’s fur coat and bounced around before a culturally-mixed crowd belting out Crayon Pop’s hit song “빠빠빠” just minutes before midnight. It was incredible – unforgettable – wouldn’t trade it for anything.
But all the alcohol and sleep deprivation did me in in due time. And once January rolled around, I was thrilled to jump back into the classroom and resume a routine. I need stability.
I can’t speak for others, but I thrive in structure – scheduled scaffolding to mold my life around. As an upholder (as described by Gretchen Rubin), “discipline is my freedom.”
Regular classes and working hours have blessed me this January.
I missed habits. I missed structure. I missed discipline.
I know it never left me. I know I could be more disciplined in December. I could make that choice.
But I’m only human. I am weak. And as much as I want to be a paragon of productivity and healthy habits, I am no robot.
So one hand, December is full of festivities that come only once a year – holiday parties, New Year’s Eve, and birthdays. Despite my gripes, I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.
But on the other hand, the downside of these disruptive events is a departure from my path of healthy habits, creative endeavors, and lifelong learning. Momentum breaks as I choose to pause my striving toward a self-ideal. This can itself prove physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing.
Now we enter February, fresh on the other side of January, resting on the far side of December – a hellish yet wonderful 31 days.
But as I plan to visit my family in Hawaii, I’ve appreciated the chance to settle back into routine and to re-direct myself toward healthy striving toward superiority.
I hope all of you have wonderful vacations and find even more peace and joy resettling back into daily life.