Charlie Brown Trees, Unicorn Sleighs, and the Heart Shaped Umbrella (A Christmas Post)


Charlie one“I guess you were right, Linus. I shouldn’t have picked this little tree. Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about. Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” – Charlie Brown

It’s Christmas, and I’m broke. Y, my girlfriend, hasn’t let this alter her wish list. She knows what she wants. We’ve been together ten months, and she wants us to get couple rings for Christmas. Couple rings are a very Korean thing – when Korean couples get serious, they buy matching rings to express their love and/or signal ownership. The meaning of the couple ring is vague, they don’t signify that you’re engaged or anything, it’s more like in the ’50s when girls wore a pin to show they were going steady. And Y wants my pin, in the form of matching rings that she says will cost around $150.

asian santaSo it’s off to the mall we go. I’m anxious to get there, not because of the rings, but because I want to see if there’s an Asian Mall Santa. It’s juvenile, but the thought amuses me. I start thinking about how North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would make a wonderful Santa Claus. They’re virtually the same person: they’re both fat, come from the North, live in secrecy, are surrounded by small people, and both of them have magical horned animals (If you haven’t heard, North Korea claims to have discovered a unicorn lair. No, I’m not making that up.) True, Mr. Kim is most famous for his nuclear weapons program, but who’s to say Santa doesn’t have WMDs too? Have we ever checked? I mean, what do you think little terrorist Al Qaeda kids want for Christmas? I don’t think the elves are making them wooden rocking horses.

That’s what I’m thinking about as Y and I start looking for rings. Kim Jong-Santa and his unicorn sleigh, flying around the world, giving good little children magical toys and spreading government propaganda. We hop from one jewelry store to the next. Each time, Y tries on rings and asks for the price, and every time the price is significantly higher than what we anticipated.

“I love it,” she says. “It’s $550.”

“I’m sure you’ll find another one to love,” I respond.

couple ringsPlenty of rings in the sea. Although it turns out all the good ones are (not surprisingly) out of my budget. The jewelry store owners all seem grumpy, Scrooges all of them, and Y tells me it’s because we’re looking at the most inexpensive rings, and they think it’s ridiculous. “They see a foreigner and they think he’s rich,” she says. “They think all foreigners are rich.”

The day comes to a close, and we don’t buy anything. I tell her that I love her, but I can’t afford these rings. Then I try to make it sound like we’ve done a public service, since my broke foreign ass has shattered the stereotypes the jewelers had and we’ve enlightened them. Yes, I couldn’t afford a ring, but at least I expanded cultural awareness.

Fast forward. Christmas Eve. Y and I are watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special, which she’s never seen. This is just the beginning. I’ve also downloaded The Snowman, The Grinch, Rudolph, Garfield’s Christmas, and about 30 other specials. I see her future, and it involves stop motion animation. But before we can get to the next special, she takes out a box and gives me my present. It’s a wallet with a change pouch. I didn’t expect anything.

I don’t know what to say. I don’t have anything for her. Not a thing. What’s wrong with me? I’m the worst boyfriend ever, the boyfriend that stole Christmas.

I think she’ll get upset, but she doesn’t. She says all she wants is an umbrella. A heart shaped one. So the wet snow doesn’t fall on her. And she goes over to the computer so I can buy the gift online. The Internet, like Ernest, has saved Christmas.

charlie twoOnce, as a young man, I thought that I understood and could relate to the tree Charlie Brown buys in his Christmas special. You know, the little goofy one that helped teach Charlie the true meaning of Christmas. Over the years, I relate to it on a deeper level. Every holiday, it seems like the Charlie Brown Tree gets more and more important.

“I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.” – Linus

No rings, that’s fine. There really is no Kim Jong-Santa, so we’ll make do with what we can. We’ve got the snow outside and eleven hours of cartoon specials. A heart shaped umbrella is on its way. And we’ve got another day to spend together, so we’re pretty lucky.

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown tells me. Being able to find someone who needs you, just like he found that little tree.


Searching for Signs of Christmas Near the North Korean Border


“We’re gonna die out here, aren’t we?” TTD said.  It had been almost two hours and we were still on the 3000 bus, heading towards the border of North and South Korea.  The sun was out when we got on the bus, but there was no light now and everything was pitch black.  It was Christmas Eve and neither of us knew if we were even remotely close to our destination.

Kim Jong Il had only passed away a few days earlier, and now it looked like we might be following in his footsteps.  It had snowed the night before and the ground was covered in white.  “Do you have your cross?” I asked TTD.

“Yeah, I got it,” she said.  The 3000 bus ventured on; we’d be on a busy street one minute and then driving through an empty field the next.  Sis sat beside me, shaking her head.

“This was the dumbest idea ever,” she said.  “The next time you’re in charge of making plans, I’m staying home.”

“It seemed like a good plan,” I said, vaguely trying to defend myself, “until we got on the bus…”


“Have you read about the Christmas Tree?” I asked TTD while we were participating in the annual 12 Pubs of Christmas bar crawl.  “The one North Korea is all upset about?”

She had.  The “border tree” was big news.  It was a week before Christmas and North Korea was threatening that there would be “unexpected consequences” if South Korea allowed the “border tree” to be lit.  The tree – which is really not a tree at all, but a big metal tower with Christmas lights on it – sat on the top of Aegibong Hill, about two miles from the Korean border, and, from what the news reports said, it would be big enough for people in the North to clearly see it.  This infuriated the North Korean government (on a website, the tree was referred to as “psychological warfare”); the North, like most communist states, is strongly atheist and viewed the tree as an attempt by the South to spread Christianity.

I took a big sip from my delicious Guinness.  “We should go see it,” I said.  “On Christmas Eve…we should go spend Christmas Eve at the border tree!”

“Don’t you think that might be a little dangerous?” TTD asked.  She wasn’t drinking.

“Well, yes…” I said.  “But who else is going to do that?  We’ll be the only ones…and who knows what will happen?  It’ll be an adventure.”

She shrugged.  “Okay, I’m in.”

With that decided, we did a little research.  The tree was on the top of a hill.  To get to the hill, we’d have to take a bus to the bottom and then somehow get a car to take us to the top.  Furthermore, we’d have to go through a security checkpoint, and we wouldn’t be allowed in unless there was at least one person in our group who spoke fluent Korean.

“Do we have a Korean friend we can bring?”  TTD asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Let’s think.”  3 seconds later, we agreed that we didn’t.

“We don’t have a car, and we don’t speak Korean,” TTD said.  “How are we gonna get in?”

I’d read a few articles about Christian groups going to the tree to sing carols for North Korea.  “We’ll have to latch onto a church group,” I said.  “We’ll have to pretend we’re Christians.”

“I’ll buy a cross.”

“That’s a great idea!  It’s gonna be Christmas Eve – there’s bound to be Christians all over the place.  So we’ll wear crosses, we’ll pretend we want to sing ‘Silent Night’ for the North Koreans, and we’ll get one of the church groups to drive us to the top of the hill.”

The next day, Kim Jong Il died.  The idea of going to the tree was a little suspect to begin with, and this didn’t help any.  What if they actually did bomb the tree?  It sounded paranoid, though with the switch to Kim Jong Un, who could say exactly what the North Korean government would be thinking?

It didn’t matter that much.  TTD went and bought her cross.  She somehow persuaded Sis to come along, and there we were, the three of us, on the 3000 bus driving through the darkness, headed for the border tree.


On the first pass, we went too far and ended up at the bus station on Gangwa Island.  “I’m done,” Sis said.  “I’m getting on a bus and going back to Incheon.”

“Don’t you want to see the tree?” TTD asked.

“You guys realize there’s a 95% chance you won’t see the tree,” Sis said.  “Merry Christmas.”

She was right.  TTD and I brushed her pessimism off and went back.  We focused on the bus stops, and when we heard the right one, we jumped off the bus…and into a desolate no-man’s-land completely devoid of any signs of human existence.

“Shit!” TTD said.  “What do we do now?”

“Fuck, I don’t know!” I shouted.  It was dark and cold.  “Where the hell are all the Christians?”

“Where’s the tree?”

“I don’t know.  You’re supposed to be able to see it from North Korea…you’d think we’d be able to see it from here…”

We were surrounded by big hills, and yet there was no Christmas tree in sight.  There weren’t even any lights in sight.  There were just a bunch of side roads, covered in snow, going up towards the hills.  No people.  No cars.  There was a church way off in the distance, with a neon red cross on its roof.

“This is like a horror movie,” TTD said.  “There’s nothing out here.  I don’t even know which direction to go in.”

“Maybe we should wait here until the next bus comes and go back…”

“I just wanted to see a Christmas tree,” she muttered.

Maybe in North Korea there was somebody who, on the night before Christmas, looked out and, unlike us, saw the bright lights shining from the tree on top of Aegibong Hill.  It’s strange to think that no carols went through that person’s head; that there could be no Christmas songs in a person’s collected knowledge.  Or that an enormous Christmas tree could be seen as nothing more than a pole with lights on it, out somewhere in the far distance.



The Topiclessbar Christmas Special


“You killed his Christmas present!” C-Batz said in a voice loud enough to warrant an exclamation point.  She was holding the plastic container the stag beetle came in.  I’d gotten my beetle for the Orphan Christmas Party about an hour earlier and, not thinking, put it in the shopping bag with the rest of the things I bought.  Now there it was, on its back, looking like the trip back had done it in.  I wondered if I could return it to the store and say I bought it that way.

“Maybe it’s not dead,” I said.  “Open the case up and poke it.”

“I’m not touching it!” she said.  “It’s disgusting.”  C-Batz had bought her orphan a beetle also, but since she couldn’t make the Orphan Christmas Party, I would have to deliver both of the monstrosities.  (For some background on the beetle/orphan situation, click here).

“Fine, give it to me,” I said.  The beetle was big and ugly.  I opened the container and, using the fat of my first finger, flipped it over.  Its antlers poked me, sort of like if Rudolph got really angry and poked Santa’s belly…only Rudolph was a bug instead of a deer.

The beetle was alive.  Christmas was saved.


Friday would be the Christmas party at my school.  The school put up a Christmas tree and strung up lights.  It was, in the seven years I’ve spent in education, the first time I’ve ever seen a Christmas tree in a school.  And dang it – not gonna lie – it made me happy.

Do the kids here all celebrate Christmas?  No, not even close.  But one student, Peter, does, and he still believes in Santa Claus.  My boss Leah told me this.

“Peter believes in Santa….it’s so sad!” she said.

“I think it’s cute,” I replied, because Peter is still little enough to think Santa comes down the chimney of his apartment (?) and for that to be acceptable.

“No, he told me very sad story,” Leah said.  “Last year, he said Santa gave June a present but not him.”  June is Peter’s older brother and also attends our academy.  Leah continued, “That means Peter’s parents gave June a present and didn’t give Peter anything.  He said, ‘I wonder why Santa didn’t bring me a present.  I must have been bad and cried too much last year.’”

Leah was right – it was pretty sad.  To summarize, Peter’s parents stiffed him on a Christmas present, and instead of acknowledging that, Peter believes he was naughty and therefore Santa didn’t bring him anything.  What will he think when he gets older?  When will the denial stop?

“The other students said, ‘Peter, Santa is really Mom and Dad,’” Leah said.  “They knew because they found receipt.  Peter told them ‘no!’  He said, ‘I think it is Santa.’”

I saw Peter in the hallway later.  It was before school started and I brought him into the classroom.  I asked him about Christmas.  The story checked out.  Last year, Peter got nada.  June got a robot.

“Will Santa bring you something this year?” I asked the little dude.

“I don’t know,” he said.  “I will write him a letter the night before and maybe he will read it and bring me present.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Good luck.  Have some candy.”

At the end of the day I saw June and asked him if Santa would bring him a present for Christmas.

“Yes,” June said.  “I’m gonna get a cap.”


The orphanage I went to, in the northern part of Seoul, was big and marvelous, like a dream home if that term can be applied to orphanages.  The man who ran the volunteer program had me stash the two beetles and their cages (which were more expensive than the beetles, leading me to believe that my life, if a monetary value was to be placed on it, is worth less than my rent) in the main office.  He led me and the other volunteers into a big room where about fifty kids sat quietly, waiting politely.  It bore no resemblance to my classroom at all.  No one was screaming, or crying, or running around with a knife.

The Snowman - I remember him well

Two other volunteers and I were given dittos and colored paper, and we took a group of kids into a room to color and make snowflakes.  Since I didn’t know how to make a snowflake (it’s actually quite hard…shut up!), I basically just sat in the back with the bratty kid and let him hit me while the others decorated the place.  I always bond with the bratty kid; this one was funny and cool and when he wasn’t abusing me, we colored snowmen together.

Finally the time came to give out presents.  I gave the two boys their stag beetles.  Thankfully, they were happy and excited, not petrified and repulsed as I would have been.  The boys let me sit with them and go through the contents of the case, like the jelly packets they’ll have to use to feed the beetles.  When I was leaving, I saw one of the boys walking around the playground outside with his beetle.  It was cute.  Like they were new best friends.  I pictured him pushing the beetle on the swing.  Wee!

Sunday will be Christmas, and I’ll likely spend it getting drunk with my ex-pat friends.  On the other side of the world, my little niece will open her presents, and my sister will feel like a mom, and my parents will feel old.  Elsewhere, the two orphan boys will be feeding their beetles jelly and caring for them as anyone would care for any pet, no matter how cute or hideous it may be.  Peter will hopefully wake to find that his letter to Santa worked, while June tries on his new cap.  The Christmas tree will sit in our empty school.  Everywhere, things will be a little more interesting, and life will be a little more wonderful.


All I Want For Christmas Is…A Beetle?


My friend PJ is an outstanding person.  A month from now, PJ will be leaving her cushiony job in Korea to go work with babies in Kazakhstan.  She’ll be teaching the Kazakh children English, playing games with them, helping them shave their mustaches and trim their chest hair, etc.  Last week I went to the Kazakhstani Embassy with her, with the hopes that at least one of the workers would look like Borat.  I was disappointed.  Maybe in reality they don’t really look like that, and the babies don’t have mustaches and chest hair.  Similarly, I’m told gay men don’t really act like Bruno.

See – I am a bad person and a moron.  PJ hasn’t even seen Borat, because she is an outstanding person.

Due to her infectious goodness, I couldn’t say ‘no’ to PJ when she asked me to sign up for a Christmas donation program happening at an orphanage here in Seoul.  The website had a spreadsheet with the names of the children, and next to each kid’s name was a gift request.  Some kids wanted clothes, some wristwatches, some ambitious ones asked for MP3 players (dang!  I don’t even have an MP3 player!).  I told PJ that I would find the kid who wanted the weirdest present and sign up to buy it for him/her.  She seemed pleased with that.  Although she is outstanding, she is also broke, and so PJ did not sign up to buy an orphan an MP3 player.  Instead, her kid gets a diary.

I looked through the list, trying to find a cool eccentric orphan to get a gift for, until I came to one that present stood out: Stag Beetle.

“What the hell is a stag beetle?” I asked PJ.  She didn’t know, so I Googled it.  I figured it was some kind of toy, like a Big Bad Beetleborg or something.  Instead, Google sent me back pictures of a real living insect.  “Does this kid want a real beetle?” I wondered.

Yes, it turns out.  Yes he does.  The Stag Beetle is apparently not that rare of a pet and they are sold in lots of stores here, including HomePlus (the Korean equivalent to Target).  It’s also the only pet I know of that you’re supposed to “make into a specimen” once it dies.  Stag Beetles don’t live very long, and when one dies, the owner is supposed to “pin” it and display it somewhere.  I was also assumed to find out, from the stag beetle website, that between death and its pinning, the beetle is supposed to be stored in the refrigerator.  Could you imagine this happening with any other pet?

“Hey, where’s your guinea pig?”

“Oh, it’s behind the milk.”

In other news, the stag beetle is wretched and disgusting.  Watch the short video below to see for yourself.  I’m starting to wonder if somebody’s playing a gag on this poor orphan:

Yesterday I got an email from the orphanage.  The plan, as it is laid out on the website, has donators dropping the gifts off this weekend.  The staff will then wrap the gifts and give them to the kids during the orphanage Christmas party.  However, my situation is special.  The email said that since the gift I’m donating is actually alive, I need to come to the orphanage Christmas party on December 18th and give the beetle to the kid in person.  This actually sounds pretty cool, and I’m excited to see the look on the kid’s face when he unwraps the terrifying beetle.

PJ won’t be giving her kid the diary in person.

Who’s outstanding now, baby shaver?


Reflections On My Very Strange Christmas


Sickness kept the girl in my bed.  As soon as she felt healthy enough, she got up and left and I wouldn’t see her again.  It’s odd when you have a guest in your home that clearly wants to go.  That must be the same feeling a boss has when catching an employee staring at the clock.  I think that’s why they have clocks in office buildings.  Not to tell time, but instead to act as a constant reminder to all of the employers of the world that the people working for them are always, regardless of how content they may seem, waiting to leave.

The sick girl and I were only supposed to have Christmas brunch together, but then she got sick and I took her back to my apartment to sleep.  Over waffles, fruit, and yogurt, she had already started to tell me what I knew was coming.  She didn’t want me around anymore.  This message was put on hold, though, when she got weak and couldn’t raise her head.  So off to the apartment we went, where she could recover and, her health and energy returned, kick my ass to the curb.

I spent most of Christmas day in my dark apartment, reading about North and South Korea while the sick girl slept.  The day before, the South Korean military drills ended.  The tanks and the planes went back to their bedrooms to rest.  The talk coming from both sides was a bit worrying, North Korea using the words “sacred war” and President Lee warning that another North Korean attack would result in a massive counterattack.   Both sides seemed to be moving towards a war neither side really wanted.  I looked at the sick girl and thought about how a nuclear bomb could fall from the sky and incinerate us in seconds.  It’s hard to fathom being blown to smithereens before consciously understanding exactly what has happened.  I wondered if there would be a sound or a blinding red glow in the moments before I would be turned into a small pile of dust that might later be mistaken for another dead Asian.

My friends called me, wanting me to meet them out, but I couldn’t.  It didn’t seem like the right thing to do, to leave the sick girl alone in my apartment like that.  I’m a man of class.  I don’t leave sick-girls-on-the-verve-of-kicking-me-out-of-their-lives unattended to.  I’d just sit around for the remainder of Christmas and if she needed soup or a drink of juice, I’d get it for her.  The plug was already pulled on my Christmas lights, metaphorically speaking.  There were no presents, no calls from home, no “Merry Christmas!” emails from family.  There was only a girl who wanted to leave but couldn’t, and two countries wondering how to destroy each other.

Now that the holiday and the girl are both long gone, I find myself wondering why I stayed in that situation all night.  It wasn’t like I was going to change the girl’s mind.  I guess it’s just nice to feel important sometimes.  Perhaps that was the girl’s Christmas gift to me.  For that one day, doing my best nurse impression, I got to feel as though somebody needed me.   I celebrated, in a way, in that boyish delusion, while the girl celebrated in the quiet of sleep, dreaming about whatever it is that sick girls dream of.