By Annie Lee // Sundown United – Busan, Korea
Living so far from home: from my brother, sister, mom, and dad, and all my other precious family and friends, there are so many things I miss. Then there are the things that make it all worthwhile. Newness and adventure; starting my own family, becoming a part of a community, and learning how to live in a different world: those are the things I cling to. I thrive on those things.
One thing I miss most is the holiday season. It’s so different here, in Korea. The ‘cheer’ is just not the same. Yes, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” blazes through the streets from the end of October to the middle of January, and there are trees and lights in downtown Busan; but there is no trick-or-treating, no turkey on Thanksgiving, and no Christmas dinner with mountains of presents under a tree. Nonetheless, Koreans have holidays too. And because my family is Korean and we plan on living here for a long time, I embrace those holidays as my own.
Chuseok is the biggest holiday here and is called “Korean Thanksgiving Day” by anyone who can speak a little English. Farmers have finished working and all the grains and fruits are budding. It’s a celebration of the biggest full moon of the year. It’s a hope for the greatest harvest yet.
On Chuseok, charye is performed. Charye is a ritual honoring the ancestors with a meal of all the best foods harvested that year. The most important food offering is songpyeon: rice cakes stuffed with chestnuts, chickpeas, or dates and steamed on pine needles. I guess songpyeon is the turkey of “Korean Thanksgiving Day.” They say if a woman makes pretty songpyeon, she will make beautiful babies. This Chuseok was my first time preparing the charyesang, the table of food, for my husband Seungyong’s late father.
The days before Chuseok are spent in bustling markets, bargaining for the best products. There I was, darting through mobs of pushy old ladies, trying to get to a pile of discounted short ribs. It’s more dangerous than the fight for the last 50-inch flat screen at Wal-Mart on Black Friday. It was a painstaking task but honestly, since having our baby girl June, walking to different stores and markets to eat and go shopping has become our idea of a perfect date, so we enjoyed it. The endless samples of mandu (dumplings), samgyupsal (pork belly), smoked duck, sausage, ramen, specialty breads, and rice wines are my husband’s and June’s favorite father-daughter pastime. He calls it their “lunch.” I shake my head and let them have their fun. Sometimes I even grab extras when the salespeople aren’t looking.
I have seen a few charye and jesa tables. Jesa is like charye, but the rites are performed at night on the anniversary of the day of death. I remembered some of what I had to do. But still, I asked Seungyong over and over so I wouldn’t overlook even one detail. The morning of chuseok, we had a busy day ahead. We were honoring my late father-in-law at home, then going across town to honor our late uncle, then further across town to honor our late grandparents. It was fair to say we would be eating a lot of songpyeon for breakfast. All ceremonies have to be completed before noon on Chuseok, August 15 on the lunar calendar.
I woke up at six a.m. and crept out from between my babies. From what I had remembered, there needed to be a variety of fruits (with the tops cut off to ready them for eating), battered and fried sweet potato and other veggies, fried meat, kimchi, rice cakes, soup, rice, pan-fried fish, raw chestnuts, rice wine, and maybe a few of Seung’s father’s favorite foods. Depending on the family, some add untraditional things and some don’t. We, being an unconventional family, decided to stray a bit.
I made some Mexican caldo for the soup and salmon cakes for one of the fried dishes. Seungyong’s father traveled overseas a lot and liked a lot of Western foods. So, we thought he would’ve wanted it that way.
I found myself working very slowly and methodically. I cleaned each surface and dish and took care in cutting precise pieces and cooking everything to perfection.
I counted the amount of portions per dish, except for the smaller items like grapes and kimchis, and made sure they were all an odd number, for good luck. As each item was finished, I neatly displayed it on its own decorative plate and set the plates on a low table. Usually, wooden serving dishes and matching podiums of different heights are used instead, but we don’t have those yet. We also need a byeongpung (a six-paneled folding screen, with poetic calligraphy written across it) and a bigger photo of his father for the backdrop of the charyesang. We will get them for next year. Seungyong had to help me with the correct placement of each food and with fashioning the table so we would be bowing toward the north.
It was an extremely spiritual experience. For so many reasons, I appreciate Seungyong’s father and I wish he could be here to meet his granddaughter and me. We were so proud we could invite him into our home and perform his charye with us this year. It always feels as if, for those few minutes, he really is with us.
When the table was set, we placed his framed photo behind the food and set one candle on each side of it. A gold spoon and matching chopsticks were laid in front of the food, beside the rice and soup. Later, when I showed our aunt the display, she pointed out that the soup and rice were on opposite sides, because the dead are presented their food in reverse. Oh well, I was close. She smiled and said sweetly, “Gwenchana, gwenchana” (it’s okay) and put her hand on my shoulder. What a lovely lady. We put a pretty dress on June and Seungyong put his slacks and button-down shirt on. I opened the front door to invite my late father-in-law in and we began.
The rites of jesa and charye are very specific and it’s important they are done exactly. The jibsa (the person who assists the dead in eating) lights three incense and the jeju (the host-usually the oldest son) bows to the floor twice to call on ancestors and bring them from the ground. One bow is for yang- life, and two bows are for ying- death. Next, the jibsa pours a small shot of rice wine into a cup and hands it to the jeju, who makes three counter-clockwise circles over the smoking incense. The shot is then poured out into a ‘good luck’ bowl and the bowl is set by the backdrop. Everyone bows twice. The jibsa pours a full shot and the jeju presents it to the ancestor; the spoon is set on the rice, facing east (so the ancestor can easily pick it up with his right hand), and the chopsticks are hit against the table three times and put on either meat or fish. Only the jeju bows. In three pours, the shot is emptied into the good luck bowl and another drink is poured. The chopsticks are hit three more times and set on the songpyeon. Everyone bows twice and leaves the room to let the dead eat in peace. We sat in our bedroom quietly watching June unfold our clean laundry and smiled at each other. We had done it.
It’s unbelievably emotional watching my husband assist his late father in eating and drinking, bowing afterward- forehead to the ground- in his honor. Every time I attend a jesa or charye for his father, usually at his grandmother’s house, I just hold my breath as tears roll down my face. Those moments are a raw portrait of humility and affection.
We left our apartment and made our way under the city on an hour subway-ride to our families’ houses to do the same ritual twice more. My family here in Korea includes me as if I’ve always been one of them. They embrace me. They’ve watched out for me and made sure I was okay, especially during the two years Seungyong was away doing his mandatory army duty. They hold my hands, feed me my favorite foods, and walk me down the street when it’s time to say goodbye- waving until I am out of sight. They appreciate the difficulties I face and they realize my love for their cousin, brother, nephew, son, grandson; they laugh with me at my highest and they pick me up when I am down. That’s what makes it all worthwhile. Yes, the holiday season may never be the same for me. And I’m okay with that.