Korean New Year (설날)

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This past weekend in Korea was Seollal (설날) or Lunar New Year. I had the unique privilege of being invited to my co-teacher’s house to observe the ancestral rites (Jesa) and also participate in eating the traditional first meal of the New Year.

I had no idea what to expect.

On the Tuesday before Lunar New Year, I went to an expat potluck where one of my friends told me that the first time you visit a Korean household, you need to bring a gift of either tissue (toilet paper) or fruit or something useful. Well, I didn’t relish the idea of knocking on my co-teacher’s door while hugging a giant package of toilet paper, so the night before New Year, I went to Emart looking for fruit. All week, I had been seeing people on the bus and walking around town carrying large boxes wrapped in golden-colored cloths. Suddenly, I realized that if I bought one of the special New Year gift boxes of food that Emart was selling, I too could be walking around looking official and important and Korean with a golden-cloth wrapped box. So, that’s what I did. I bought the fanciest box of rice cakes EVER. (My other choices were seaweed, various root vegetables with the soil saran-wrapped in for freshness, fish, and ginseng).

The next morning I took a taxi to my co-teachers house. Sunlight lit up the white garden houses on the farming hills we passed, making them look more like candles or the start of tiny brush fires than anything else. I was late and stressed but my taxi driver got me there right on time and my co-teacher was shocked and delighted that I had brought a gift.

Once inside her apartment, the atmosphere was festive and warm. My co-teacher’s mother-in-law gave me a warm hug and her wizened grandmother introduced herself to me by putting one hand on her chest and saying, halmeoni (할머니), which means grandma in Korean. My co-teacher made a lot of fuss about getting me to sit down to watch, and then halmeoni made fuss about worrying if the floor was too cold for me, which it wasn’t. Meanwhile, at one end of the room, two lacquered floor tables were been filled with various dishes and platters of fruits, vegetables, dried fish, and rice cakes.

From time-to-time, my co-teacher would come over to explain various things and then I’ve used google and wikipedia to sort of fill in the rest. The ceremony typically held during Seollal is a Jesa ceremony and basically it’s an ancestor ritual.  My co-worker’s husband is the oldest son in his family, so he was the one putting most of the food on the table and arranging things. On the back of the table, resting against children’s books, were four name papers that represented four different lines of ancestry with the names and regions or origin written on them in Chinese kanji letters. My co-teacher explained to me that neither she nor her husband had ever seen the faces of or even pictures of these original ancestors. Then, she brought over her little son, Eric, who was dressed in Hanbok (traditional Korean clothes) to bow to me. Both Eric and I blushed at this.

The last things to go on the table was the traditional New Year meal of tteokguk (rice cake soup) and soju, or rice-spirits. Then, the bowing began.

At this point, my co-teacher came and stood next to me. “You know how we used to have kinda discrimination against women in Korea?” she said. “Well, only the men bow. Still, even now,” she said.

“I see,” I said.

“Women do the cooking and cleaning and such,” she told me.

“That’s great,” I said, smiling and bowing my head slightly and not knowing what to say exactly. But my co-teacher knows me well enough to pick up on my sarcasm.

I wasn’t going to take any pictures. As a photographer, even I have my limits and I like to try and respect sacred moments. But my co-teacher knows me well and she kept insisting that I take photos and asking me why I wasn’t taking any. Finally she convinced me that it was okay, so I took some photos, but tried to remain un-intrusive.

I expected the bowing to be more rigid and formal, more precise, you might say. But it wasn’t. All the men in the family sort-of bowed at different times with varying degrees of precision in their form but everyone was obviously following the oldest son. My students are always telling me that bowing is important and that you have to practice well, so I think some families are just more laid back then others.

Once the bowing was done, my co-teacher pushed me out the door with her husband, who was carrying the four name papers from the table. “I’ll explain later, just go with him, okay?” she said. “Okay,” I shrugged. We went down to the courtyard where her husband burned each of the name papers with a lighter, making sure most of the white was gone and only black feathers remained. He then explained things succinctly enough,

“Bye, bye!” he said in English.

I understood.

I don’t know what was going on in the house during this time. But it’s possible that everyone in the family had departed briefly into another room to let the ancestors receive the offering and “eat” the food. This would be called Yushik (유식).  But every family does things differently and with varying degrees of formality, so I’m not sure if it did happen.

Once we got back inside, the tables had been moved and set up so that we could eat and immediately I was told to eat, even though everyone else was still bustling around preparing things. I sat where I was told and sort of just stared at my bowl, waiting. It was one of the eight original metal bowls that had been set out for the ancestors. I wondered if the family was going to have me eat this bowl of soup, it seemed too important for a visitor to be eating. Just then, somebody saw the metal bowl in front of me and instead switched it out for different ceramic bowl of the same soup. I felt like my question had been answered.

Soon, everyone else joined me at the table. Halmeoni sat down at my left and handed handed me a plate of carefully peeled chestnuts. “Bam” she said to me. I smiled and took a chestnut. I learned the word for chestnut early on in Korea.

Tteokguk is a rice cake soup make with thinly sliced pieces of rice cake, eggs, meat, seaweed, and sometimes dumplings, or mandu. Tteok means “rice cake” and guk means soup. Together, it’s 떡국. According to Korean custom, once you’ve finished eating eating tteokguk on New Years, you are officially one year older. In Korean age, that means that if you’re presently 27, but you’re turning 28 this year, that really now you’re actually 29 in Korean age because Koreans say that you’re one year old when you’re born. Depressing, really, though the soup was delicious.

Early on in the meal, my co-teacher’s husband came around and deposited a small ceremonial golden stand with a little metal cup/bowl on my right-hand side.

“Is that for you or for me?” I asked my co-teacher, who was sitting on my right.

“It’s for you!” she said. “Husband gave it to you!”

“Should I drink it now or later?” I asked.

“You don’t have to drink it if you don’t want!” she said.

“Oh, I understand. But if I did want to drink it, when should I do that?” I asked.

“It’s up to you!” she told me. “But you don’t have to drink it,” she assured me.

I decided I would wait until after I was finished with my soup. I knew that being given the ceremonial soju was a really great honor but I also couldn’t figure out how exactly I was supposed to drink it. Almost always in Korea, soju is consumed with one-shot. Never have I seen grown men sitting around and sipping from little shot glasses like you would a fine glass of whiskey. But this being ceremonial soju, I wondered if the rules were different, especially if it was a higher quality version. While I was eating, I watched the group of men over at the other table to see if I could mimic what they did with their cups of soju but they must have already had theirs. When the time finally came, I decided to just politely turn my head from the table, cover the side of my mouth with my left hand, and one-shot the whole glass. It turned out to be a much sweeter, and higher quality soju than anything I’ve ever had before and so I immediately regretted my decision, thinking it must be a major cultural faux pas by drinking it so quickly, but nobody seemed upset, so I decided it was alright.

After that, they brought out fruit. My co-teacher handed me a dried persimmon and asked me if I knew what it was. I did and I ate it happily along with slices of apple, pear, and a few rice cakes. I was really pleased to see that a familiar looking and delicious cookie had made it to the holiday table. I was introduced to this cookie right before Christmas when the lady at the convenience store near my house happily gave me a package of them after I had given her a candy cane and wished her a Merry Christmas (this same lady now bows DEEPLY whenever I come into her store, it makes me slightly uncomfortable). Anyways, I was able to ask my co-teacher what exactly the cookies are and what they’re made out of.

Apparently the cookies I love so much are called Yakgwa (약과) and they are made mostly of honey, sesame oil, and wheat flower. They’re also deep-fried and have more calories than a donut. Naturally, one of my favorite Korean foods WOULD look harmless but really be deep-fried and have more calories than a donut. What’s interesting though is that Yakgwa actually means medical confectionary because the name was coined during the Joseon Dynasty when honey was considered to be a medicine. The more you know.

After we ate our fruit (and I steered clear of the deceptive Yakgwa), my co-teacher made me a cup of the traditional Korean Maxim instant coffee (in a beautiful teacup) as I sat on the floor with her grandmother and her sister-in-law remarked at how talented and comfortable I looked sitting cross-legged. I smiled and took the compliment.

When coffee was finished, my co-teacher had planned on driving me to the bus station. But a short meeting was held with the powers in charge (Read: Patriarchy) and it was instead decided that my co-teacher’s husband would drive me to the bus station.

“Is it okay?” she asked as she walked me to the door.

“Of course it’s okay!” I said. Her eyebrows were slightly knitted.

“Okay, because I have to clean and dishes. You know, women,” she said.

I smiled and nodded.

A few minutes later, I was climbing into the family SUV along with two of the boy cousins, who were ages 9 and 13, I think. They were chattering in Korean and I couldn’t help but smirk as we were pulling out of the apartment complex and I heard them begging their uncle to buy them ice cream. I might be in a different country on the other side of the globe, but some things never change.

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