Monday, January 7, 2013

Over the River and Through the Woods

It's not often that I get to write about going home for Christmas, as Christmas at my house has gone relatively the same way since I was in diapers. Good food, early morning presents, lots of family and shenanigans are the norm. The years start to blur the older I get, but nevertheless Christmas is always a special time for my family. Last year was the first time I actually missed Christmas. Korea doesn't celebrate it like Americans do, as they only get 1 day off (it didn't spare me the months of Christmas music pumping through every storefront and coffee shop, though). Going home has proven to be difficult when I'm living 6000 miles away.

This year, however, I was a bit more lucky. I had a new job with a little extra money in the bank and a vacation that timed perfectly with Christmas. I also had a girlfriend with the same vacation as me wanting to go on a trip this year. She had never been to the USA before, either, so we saw how perfect it would be to visit my home and meet my family.

To tell you the truth, it was less about bringing a girl home for Christmas as much as it was exposing a side of my life that even friends I've had for many years don't get to see. I make it a point to keep my friends and family in separate worlds ever since I left for college. I think most people do this, but I found it had a very distinct function when I started living abroad for a year or so at a time. Traveling abroad lets you be whoever you want to be, and you can take risks you normally wouldn't take because there's the good chance that after a short period of time you'll never see these people again. Everything's immediate and the clock is ticking. Failing is a very real possibility, and knowing that a world away is your family is the most comforting feeling in the world. It makes you invincible. It protects you and them. No matter what happens, you have a place in this world waiting for you at home.

When my worlds start to merge and the lines begin to blur is when I feel threatened. What if they don't get along? What if I learn I can't have both because of unforeseen circumstances? I knew it was a possibility to begin with, but I'm not ready to face that decision quite yet.

Fortunately, I seem to underestimate the love of my family and where I come from. My family welcomed her with open arms...even at times showing her more love than me. It made her first trip to the USA way less intimidating, with the language barrier melting away in a shower of gifts and hellos. My baby niece and nephew also are heart-melting, and she couldn't get enough of them.

Over the course of a short week, we managed to log over 1000 miles in the mother's mini van. Jet lag would catch up with us at times, often squeezing in naps between seeing the Grand Canyon and opening presents with the family on Christmas Day. Our awkward sleep schedule let us visit some old friends at night and we often ended a day with me explaining some of the odd things she saw. Try explaining to someone new to the United States why we need 64 ounces of soda with our Big explanation went along the lines of "We like freedom, and it's our right to give ourselves diabetes."

Our whirlwind tour ended with a day in Disneyland, one of the destinations that I insisted we visit to validate the $1500 plane ticket. We picked up a pair of Park Hopper passes and pulled an open-close day in both Disneyland and California Adventure parks. For those not familiar, Disneyland is divided into two parks: The Magic Kingdom (Original Disneyland) and California Adventure. A Park Hopper pass allows you to hop between both in a given day. Both parks are pretty big, and you can easily spend a day in one and not do everything. Everything's dependent on the crowds and how lucky you get with lines. We also were in the middle of the busiest season for the parks, so busy that they often close the parks down because they reach capacity at around lunch time.

Fortunately for my girlfriend, I'm a Disneyland veteran. I've been to the park every year since I was 5, and I can map out the park on memory alone. I let her know ahead of time that we were going to go from open (8am) to close (12am), and I made the bold promise that I would get her on every ride and see every parade and show.

The day played out perfectly. I was able to Fastpass and walk on literally every ride in both parks. We managed to squeeze in shopping, a lovely lunch, and even a nap during the Aladdin show. We got to find some decent seats for Fantasmic and see Mickey battle some dragons on a perfectly cool winter night in Southern California. Our night ended with World of Color in California Adventure, which seemed so perfect that even a Disney nerd like me couldn't have planned it better.

I could spend an entire post telling you how much I love Disney and the ecosystem they create for people. For many of us, the characters that Disney has created over the years hold a special place in our hearts and our inner child. When I go to Disneyland, no matter the age, that inner child comes out again. I'm travel-hardened, and I've seen the harsh realities that this world has to offer. For a day, however, I'm able to see that even in between those horrible things in the world there's still room for imagination and a little magic. That's what Disney gave me as I grew up, and I'm able to see that still today (even in between all of the horrible tourists that seem to occupy Disneyland). Shows like World of Color, where they make water fountains look like flumes of paint coloring the night, culminate those feelings and enhance it with music that still makes my inner kid sing along with smile on his face. I got to share that with someone special, and it's a Disney memory I'll hold on to for a long while.

After Disneyland, we were off to see some more family and, just like that, we were on a plane heading back to Korea. Exhaustion finally caught up with me as my immune system decided to give up on me and give me a nasty cold. I'm still recovering, but it's hard to be bitter about it. My girlfriend has some of the trinkets and gifts my family gave her on display at her home. She's still talking about it and how I have such a wonderful (and slightly crazy) family. She doesn't have to remind me, I know I'm a lucky guy. I have 2 homes, and I'll always have that place to go back to that reminds me where I came from and where I should be going.