Sunday, September 22, 2013

My First Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving)

While other western teachers were busy traveling Korea or various exotic destinations around Asia on their 5 day weekend, I was fully immersed in chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving). Chuseok (추석) is a major harvest festival and 3 day holiday in Korea celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. Up until only a few decades ago Korea was still a heavily agrarian society so celebrating a good harvest is still an central part of Korean culture. During chuseok Koreans visit their ancestral hometowns and share a feast of Korean traditional foods. 

There are a couple of theories on how and when chuseok originated, but the most popular theory is that it started 2000 years ago as a weaving competition when two teams would go head to head in a month long weaving competition. The team that had woven the most cloth was declared the victor and was treated to a feast by the losing team. 

In modern South Korea, on Chuseok there is a mass exodus of Koreans as they return to their hometowns to pay respects to the spirits of their ancestors. Early in the morning (before breakfast) people perform ancestral worship rituals and then later in the day visit the tombs of their immediate ancestors to trim the grass and clean the area around the tomb. They also take some food and drink to offer to their ancestors to show their thanks to their ancestors for blessing their harvest. 

In modern (or maybe I should say backward) North Korea things are a little different. I was naive to think that chuseok, something of central importance to a Korean, would be one of the few things the two countries still shared. Sadly, that is not the case. North Koreans are indoctrinated that they should be thankful to their great leader, not their ancestors, for the food on their table. Up until 1988 North Korea did not celebrate chuseok. Korea times reported that north Koreans now highlight Chuseok with a visit to the graves of the founding members of North Korea and relatives of Kim Jong-il. But even this 'honor' is reserved for the upper class in North Korea. Generally chuseok celebrations in North Korea are very low key due to the general lack of food for the 12 million (50%) people living in extreme poverty and government restrictions on travel between districts

Enough History. Time for some photos. 

As I have touched on in previous blog posts, gift giving in Korea is an integral part of life. Chuseok is no different. In western countries you know Christmas is just around the corner when stores start playing Christmas music and hanging decorations. In Korea you know when chuseok is around the corner when stores bring out their over priced gift boxes of food, shampoo, alcohol, well being medicines (ginseng/vitamins/etc), soaps and my favorite.... SPAM. Yes, that's right. You want to show someone you care, buy them a gift box of SPAM.  


Rocket fuel (aka Soju)

Shampoo and other bathroom products

Dried anchovies


This year the chuseok holiday fell on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday which is good because it meant a loooooooong weekend^^ and we didn't lose a any days due to the holiday falling on a weekend. In Australia if a public holiday falls on a weekend we get the following Monday off. No such luck in Korea. If it falls on the weekend, it's gone forever. 

Early Wednesday morning I traveled to Iksan. When I arrived Jihyeon's mother and aunt were had been up since the crack of dawn busy preparing food. I arrived to find them out on the balcony floor making Sanjeok which is grilled meat (beef, chicken, spam, prawns, fish) and vegetables dredged with flour before cooking. 

Next up was Songpyeon which is a half moon shaped rice cake with sweet or semi-sweet fillings such as red bean paste, chestnut paste or sesame seeds and honey. Jihyeon's mum was an expert at it. 

You start with a big ball of mushed up rice.

You take a small piece and make it into a cone shape to hold the fillings. 

You add the fillings.

and then seal it up. 

I decided to try my hand at it.  

After much cursing and frustration you have a neat row of songpyeon^^. 

The next morning (Thursday) was Chuseok (Thanksgiving day). I woke up to find Jihyeon's mother had been busy preparing the table so they could perform the perform ancestral worship ritual. Food is arranged on the table according to local customs, but generally fruit goes to the south of the table while behind that are vegetables. To the north of the table is rice and soup. The placement of the meat (chicken and fish) various from region to region. Soju or Makgeolli is placed on a tray at the front of the table with an incense stick standing in a small bowl of uncooked rice. You can see in the rice to the north of the table some spoons standing upright and some chopsticks resting on the Sanjeok. This is so the spirit of the their ancestors can come and enjoy the food. 

The family members then perform what is known as a "big bow" to honor their ancestors. 

After people have bowed you then need to sit around (for about 15 or 20 minutes) to give the spirit of the ancestors time to enjoy the food. 

Once the spirits have had time to chow down on the food, it was time to put some soup on the table and move the chopsticks from the Sanjeok to the fish so the ancestors could eat something different. 

Jihyeon's father also put some of the rice into the soup. 

After another 15 or 20 minutes the table was cleared

and set for breakfast. 

Mmmm. Breakfast^^.

After breakfast we drove to the cemetery where Jihyeon's fathers parents are buried. 

That is Jihyeon's uncle in the truck.

The cemetery was super busy and police had closed off all the roads making it safe and convenient for flower stalls to set up at the entrance. 

The cemetery was quite large. Something I just noticed looking at this picture is all the tomb stones are identical in size and shape. 

We walked to the middle of the cemetery where there was a large building that housed the ashes of thousands of people. 

And here are Jihyeon's grandparents. 

After paying respects to them we drove for another 45 minutes for the cemetery for Jihyeon's mothers parents. It wasn't as big as the first cemetery and was hidden away in the mountain side. We started walking up a narrow dirt road.

That turned into a narrow overgrown dirt track.

The grave was over the other side of this hill. The path got very steep so I offered my hand to Jihyeon's mother to help her up the steep hill (her knees and back are not terribly good) and I got a real surprise. She spoke her first ever English to me. She said loudly and very clearly "Thank you". ^^

On the way we passed some other graves where families were hard at work cutting back the grass and weeds. We finally arrived. Jihyeon's mothers older brother had been here a week earlier and trimmed the grass back so it looked in great condition and very neat. They set about putting some food and soju out in front of the grave. 

And then after a few minutes packed the food up and poured the soju over the mound. 

From the grave we saw an easier path (a farmers road through some rice fields) back to the main road to where we had parked. 

Later that night I went up the the roof of Jihyeon's apartment building in Iksan to try taking a photo of the full moon. The moon was too bright for my poor little camera, but I think the city came out well. 

The next day (Friday) we piled into the car again and traveled to the war cemetery where Jihyeon's uncle is buried. 

The traffic was terrible. After about 30 minutes we found a car park and started walking up the mountain. 

Again we set up some food and poured some soju for her uncle. 

The giant yellow thing between the apple and the grapes is a Korean pear. In front of the pear is some dried fish. 

We then found a shady spot to have a snack and re-hydrate before getting back in the car for the long trip home. 

Overall I thought Chuseok was interesting. It was very different to anything that we have in Australia and I liked the strong emphasis that Koreans put on making a pilgrimage to visit the graves of loved ones once a year. My only disappointment is that we didn't play a Korean card game called go-stop. Oh well. Maybe next year. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Wedding Dress Shopping

On Saturday we headed to Seoul's Gangnam district (made famous by PSY) to meet our wedding planner and go shopping for the wedding dress Jihyeon will wear to the photo shoot next month and also pick out a tux for me. The easiest way to get to the Gangnam district from Daejeon is to catch a bus from the rather large terminal complex in Daejeon.

The English signage at the bus station isn't fantastic. The blue ticket windows below are for people who have pre-ordered tickets online. The green windows are where you go to buy your ticket. To pick up a pre-ordered ticket you need to hand over the credit card used to purchase the tickets as identification.

My ticket departing at 7:30am. There is no arrival time on the ticket, but it takes about 2 hours (depending on traffic).

The bus was a first class limousine bus. Really wide leather seats with lots of leg room. There are only 3 seats across the bus and Jihyeon was thoughtful enough to book me one of the single seats so I didn't have to sit next to anyone. Thanks~~.

In Seoul I met up with Jihyeon at the bus terminal. Word of warning. The bus terminal in Gangnam is HUGE. There are around 100 bus platforms in total. If you are meeting someone there, make sure you have their phone number so you can find them. We then jumped on the subway and headed to the wedding dress shop.

This is a really nice feature on the subway in Seoul. You can see at the bottom of the screen it shows you where the next train is.

We then met up with our wedding planner...

And walked around the corner to the wedding dress shop. 

Before going in, shoes must come off and slippers must go on. Men's slippers on the left, woman's slippers on the right.

This was the first tux I tried on with long coat tails. I didn't really like it.

This was the second tux I tried on. I liked it a little better. I felt like James Bond.

This was the third tux and the one we ended up choosing.

This is the 5th tux. The 4th tux was ugly so no photo was taken. They liked me so said they would throw this jacket in for free to use at our photo shoot next month.

Next up was choosing a wedding dress.

First cab off the rank was this dress. I thought she looked good, but apparently it is an old style dress. 

Second dress was this one. It looks exactly the same as the first to me.

3 dresses in, and she found the one she wants.

Another dress

And another

And the last one...

I also made this animated gif.

After wedding dress shopping we grabbed some lunch with Jihyeon's sister. 

The chopsticks and spoons were hidden in a draw under the table. This is a common trick in Korea to save space on the table. 

After lunch we went to a suit shop to get a suit tailored for me. 

I had no idea what I wanted and it is impossible to imagine what the finished thing will look like from a small square of cloth. Lucky for me I had two fashion conscious Korean women with me.

Time to get measured up. 

Once the suit was sorted, we caught a bus to Suwon which is where Jihyeon's sister lives and went shoe shopping. 

Once the shoes were sorted we went out to dinner and had BBQ pork ribs. 

There are big pieces of meat hanging off the bones, so the idea is that you use scissors to cut up the meat into smaller pieces and then eat it Samgyeopsal style wrapped up in some lettuce.

After dinner we went to a pub and ordered a rather interesting thing to share. It was called Hwachae and is basically like a fruit punch (except you don't drink it, you eat it like soup). The one we ordered had some milk in it which is what made it white, but you couldn't taste the milk at all. 

There is a big communal bowl in the middle, and then you serve up what you want into your own bowl and eat it like you would soup. 

On the way home we stopped off at a dinosaur park and rode the triceratops. That's Jihyeon's sisters boyfriend behind me. 

Bed time...zzzzzzzzzzzz