Monday, September 15, 2008

Chuseok Adventure

Two years ago I became very ill, my symptoms were those like the stomach flu but were everyday. By Thanksgiving I was stuck in bed with both those symptoms and a terrible flu. By the middle of January I was bed ridden in pain and didn't know what was wrong with me.
So if you asked me, at that time, that in two years I would be in Korea looking out over a small farm in the mountains and celebrating their Thanksgiving day (Chuseok) I would have said that you are out of your mind.

But indeed I did recover from that episode, graduated from college, worked for some time and then packed everything up and headed out to Korea. So you see if you are an expat and you came here whether on a whim or by carefully planning it, I think you should see it as some kind of fortune in your life.

Living in Korea I am reminded of these accomplishments in my life, because I can easily think to myself how astonishing it is that I am here.

Moreover, because I have BK as my boyfriend I am able to feel more at home in this foreign land and also feel like I am an insider into the culture's everyday life and customs.

Although I am sure many foreigners get to experience Korea in many insider ways, I feel that without BK I would probably not have been able to have the unique experience I had during Korea's Chuseok holiday.

And so let me begin telling the tale of my Chuseok adventure into culture and into the mountainous countryside.

Staying a night at BK's house:
BK's house is one floor that has several bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom and living room (of course). We arrived at his house around 7pm after spending some time out on the town. His parents and brother weren't home yet so we just lounged around. I became tired and asked about where I was going to sleep and the fact that I didn't have any pajamas with me. BK gave me some of his clothing to wear for bed, here for you is what I looked like:
But just when we were having a moment about how silly I looked his Mom came home. As I shyly walked out his room to greet her, as soon as she saw me she broke into a roaring laughter, and so did I. BK told her about my situation and so she immediately went to her room in search of pajama clothing she could lend me. She gave me some pants and a pink top, so no picture was taken of this.

So the rest of the family came home at this point and everyone got ready for bed, due to the fact that we were going to get up early to drive out to the mountain.

The question came up as to where I was going to sleep, seeing how they didn't have a guest bedroom. In the end I slept in BK's brother's room, which wasn't bad and very comfortable.
I mostly relished the fact that I was sleeping in a house with a Korean family. For several reasons, mostly being that living in an officetell that sits inside a building that doesn't like an apartment complex or house, you tend to feel somewhat strange. So the experience of sleeping in a house where a family has made a comfortable home, felt like I was feeling at ease in Korea. Plus the room was darker due to no neon lights beaming from outside and also there was the soft sound of crickets chirping away in the distance.

Drive to the Mountain:
The next morning I woke up after a strange dream and wondered what time it was. I listened to see if anyone was awake and heard a few noises about the house. I got up and sneaked into BK's room where I woke him up. From there we all got ready for the day.

Because I can not speak Korean and only know the very basics, communication between BK's father and mother kind of happens in spouts of smiles, nods and gestures. BK and his brother know English so they help me out when possible. But for the most part I just smile and try to comprehend what is going on around me, so not to be confused.

Anyways, we ate some cut up apples and other fruits and then we were off to the car.

BK has been practicing driving and so he was given the keys to the car. His father sat up front to help guide him along the way. In the backseat I sat on the left seat, his mother in the middle and his brother on the right. It was a tight fit, considering his brother is really tall.

I didn't know where I was going, but knew it was going to be at a mountain. So I spent a lot of the time staring out the window and taking in the scenery.

The others in the car talked and joked around, now and then his Mother would ask me questions. After some translation we would end up having a conversation...but a few times some things got lost in translation.
The scenery was quite beautiful and I could tell that when you get out of Seoul or any of the major parts of Korea the rest of the country is this very mountainous terrain with trees and low lying farm lands. Actually I kind of felt like I was driving through the sparse areas of Northern California, where you see mountains in the distance and vast fields of crops in the foreground.

One added part of the scenery were the barrier walls of Korean Army bases. In some places you could see the tops of the towers on the base and see the soldiers inside standing at attention. When we passed by the army bases and I pointed them out BK's brother said "Very, very bad place."

We came to a part where we stopped and BK's father took over the driving. This was because were heading into the mountain and the road was narrow, steep and not paved.

I really enjoyed this part of the drive because I got to see the geology and ecology around the mountains. Also there were points where you could look out onto the valleys and see the fields and houses.

But then our ride came to a stop and we came to our destination. A little house on a hillside in the mountain, where there were some small fields. It was breathtaking!

Memorial Service Preparations:
We arrived there at bright eyed early 8:00 am. Already there were his father's side of the family relatives; Aunts, Uncles, nieces and nephews. When we arrived everyone greeted each other. They greeted me too and I think most of them knew about me, but this was their first time meeting me. I was greeted warmly by everyone with either a hug or a handshake. Indeed I was very surprised to be greeted by a hug because I thought hugging was sort of taboo here, but I guess that thought was shattered.

The property of this place was very beautiful, as you saw in the pictures. We had come here because this property was home to BK's father's parent's graves. It is on this holiday that the family comes to honor their deceased family members through ceremony. I also think it was a time to catch up on family gossip and eat.
The house on the property was humble with what seemed like just two large rooms, one which had a kitchen area, bed and TV. This was the space where the indoor ceremony took place and where we ate.

As you can see a lot of the exterior of the house looks like it was put together with raw materials. I found the site of this structure warming and charming, because it looked somewhat traditional but more so functional.

Inside the house the women were busy getting the food ready for presentation. This kind of separation of the sexes was a constant theme throughout the celebration. Where for example, the men mostly did the bowing and giving of reception to the deceased. While the woman stood in the back observing and doing the preparations and clean up. I think it would have been typical of me (as a westerner) to conclude that the women are put in a minor role here. But that is not the attitude or stance I took. Instead I tried my best to observe the festivities but with neutrality to my own culture.

For one thing consider that it was the Male's side of the family they were honoring here, not BK's mother. I asked him about this and he said that it is tradition for the father's side of the family to be honored on this day.

So with that said I can tell you that I didn't really take a role in the honoring parts of the celebrations, more so kind of took a back seat and did my observations.

Inside the house while the women finished up the food preparations the men were busy setting up a table where ceremonial foods were placed on platters in front of tablets for the dead. To better understand this I pulled a quote from a tourist website:
Charye (ancestor memorial services)
On Chuseok morning, family members gather at their homes to hold memorial services in the honor of their ancestors called Charye. Formal Charye services are held twice a year during Seollal (New Year’s Day) and Chuseok. The difference between the two services is that during Seollal the major representative food is white, a rice cake soup, while during Chuseok the major representative food is freshly harvested rice. After the service, the family members sit down together at the table to enjoy some delicious food to symbolize their blessings.
It was amusing to watch as the men arranged the table, because it seemed like they weren't entirely sure where most of the dishes went. But here for you is a picture I sneaked in of the table:

I have to say that I didn't know what came next or the procedure of anything while I was there. BK didn't really tell me what was going to happen, but I took upon myself to look around and take a guess on what was going to go down. I had watched a few Korean dramas that featured traditional life, so I had an image in my head of what the ceremony would be like.
Yet, seeing the festivities occur in real life was like watching a documentary on the National Geographic Channel. I have to say I was overwhelmed with the feeling of intrigue and awe.

Indoor memorial service and feast:
After everything was ready it was time for the honoring to begin. All the women were made to go outside, while the men did their series of bowing to towards the table and the deceased. After a first few series of bowing, the women were allowed back inside to sit or stand in the back and observe the rest of the honoring.

The procedure went like this:
  • The men were lined up according to their family relation to the deceased.
  • The oldest of the group would help with the pouring of ceremonial wine. While the other men would come up one by one, pour the wine into a little cup, hold it over the smoke of incense and then set it on the table in front of each tablet.
  • Next they all got into a circle in front of the table, clasped their hands and did their bowing, about three times.
  • This repeated itself for each individual of the circle.
I really enjoyed seeing BK take his part in the ceremony. I could tell that he had an important roll because he is his father's first born son. In fact throughout the whole day there it seemed BK had a serious and contemplative look on his face. When asked what was going on his mind, the response was not all that revealing.

After the men had finished their bowing it was the woman's turn, but I believe because I am just the girlfriend I was left out of the bowing.

Then everyone left the house and mingled outside, while they let the spirits of the deceased feast on the food and wine on the table inside.

Once enough time passed we were brought inside to have a feast ourselves. Although I don't know what each food is called I will try to describe to you the foods.
  • Fish
  • Kimchi soup
  • Pickled plants
  • Juicy and delicious steak
  • Tofu soup
  • Egg pancakes
  • Fried Tofu
  • Other assorted pickled items
My favorite was the Steak and a few of the pickled things. Yet I wasn't too hungry seeing how it was only 10am.

When given the little wine cup I hesitated at first, because due to the pills I take I am not suppose to drink wine or alcohol. But it was just a tiny cup full and so I took a sip. But you aren't suppose to sip wine, rather drink it all in one swallow. Which I did, after being chuckled at for taking just a sip.

Past times:
On American holidays when families gather we usually pull out board games, movies or a football to toss around. So I was curious to see what sort of past times Koreans do during their holiday gatherings. It turns out it mostly includes just sitting or standing around and having long chats.

Yet, I believe every family probably has their own sort of activities they do based upon their surroundings and the nature of their family.

So here are a few of the activities that I saw go on at the Jung family farm.

Farming for sweet potatoes (yams):
Before I knew it I was being yanked out onto the farm to do some yam pulling. Although I mostly observed this go on.

Then later on BK, his brother and their niece went out onto the farm to pull for some more yams. It was really cute watching these city boys digging in the soil and trying to pull out the stubborn yams.

Heading out to the field:

It turned out the harvesting of the yams was done for the purpose of roasting them, sort of like a midday snack. The roasted yams tasted warm and delicious and also somewhat special considering they just came fresh out of the ground.

Since the yams needed to be roasted there needed to be a fire, and so BK and his Uncle set about chopping wood. But it more so seemed like a male show off thing where they tried to show us their skills at chopping wood. Let me just say that BK wasn't so bad, better than his brother, but still needs some practice.

It was amusing nonetheless.

Jindo dogs:
Another past time, it seemed, at the Jung farm was observing and playing with the Jindo dogs on the farm.
...originated on Jindo Island in Korea. Although relatively unknown outside Korea, it is celebrated in its native land for its fierce loyalty and brave nature.

There were a whole pack of these dogs, most of them still puppies. Amongst this group of dogs were some other kind of breed. I didn't play with them much for fear of fleas.

That concludes the in between activities that took place. Next it was time to visit the ancestral graves.

Honoring the Graves:
Korean grave sites, like the one I saw at the Jung farm, were not flat pieces of grassy land with a large headstone on it, instead they featured a grassy mound.

Here the boys climb up to the grave sites (BK in the lead, brother following behind):
The procedure for the outdoor memorial was similar to the indoor, the men gathered around the graves and did their series of bowing.

Again platters of food and wine were offered to the grave sites and also cigarettes were lit and placed on the mounds. I did not take any pictures of the mounds out of respect.

After the bowing procedure came the part where both women and men cleaned the mounds by pulling out the weeds.
Beolcho (removing weeds around the grave) and Seongmyo (visiting ancestral graves)
On Chuseok, they go to their ancestors' graves and cut the weeds on them grown during summer, which is so called Beolcho. In the past, they used distant spots for their ancestors' graves because they wanted them to be in ideal places by the theory of configuration of the ground, or the graves were far from where they lived since some of them moved to somewhere else after determining spots for the graves. However, even in these situations, they went to mow the weeds on the graves on Chuseok and thought it was the sign and expression of filial piety.
Bo Kwan tells me:
Beolcho-we already did..remember last sunday? I went to mountain. I did Beolcho, we only did Seongmyo hehe. We usually do Beolcho before Chusuk because Chusuk is only for celebrating.. we do Beolcho due to chu-suk,it`s kind of preparation.
*I am sure someday I will get all this ritual lingo down* ;)

I was told to take part in this and tried my best to pull out what looked like weeds. After all this we went back down to the little house and sat around outside, everyone had some coffee and we chatted a bit. I was asked a few things in Korean and English and so people got to know me little by little.

Then it was time to go home. I could tell BK was tired from all the bowing and eating so I think he needed to get some rest.

I too was somewhat tired, but also was starting to feel like the communication barriers were wearing on me. I wanted to tell them how much I appreciated being a part of their family and the ceremony but all I could muster out was a bow and a thank you in Korean. Hopefully they could see that I appreciated their hospitality.

Here for you are the rest of the pictures I took whilst on the Jung farm:
Walking back to the car:
And so ends another adventure here in Korea. It gives me great pleasure to have witnessed this event, although probably mundane and normal for BK. I still have today and tomorrow off from work. Till next time...


  1. Beolcho-we already did..remember last sunday? I went to mountain. I did Beolcho, we only did Seongmyo hehe. We usually do Beolcho before Chusuk because Chusuk is only for celebrating.. we do Beolcho due to chu-suk,it`s kind of preparation.
    okay.. I should do my work..

  2. That's great that you got to participate with BK's family during this special time. Definately a peak into the culture that not all foreigners get ;)

  3. That was an epic post! I've been at the chusok food ritual, but not the mountainside thing. Thanks for taking the time to write it all out.

  4. No problem Roboseyo~! It was such a special event to me that I knew I should do it justice on my blog.

    Anyways back to the grind of work!


Leave Your Thoughts

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...