Sunday, October 4, 2009


Note: Lot's to say, sorry for the length!

What is Chuseok? Everyone explains Chuseok to me as the Korean version of Thanksgiving. And maybe it is. But instead of focusing on the birth of a country, happy pilgrims and oppressed Natives, Chuseok focuses on your family and ancestors. And, from what I can tell, that's pretty accurate.

And like Thanksgiving in the U.S., different families celebrate Thanksgiving differently. I've heard of a few experiences, but mine was nothing in comparison to those. First of all, my family is not that religious. Second, not too many people are dead. I think both of those played a huge factor into why my Chuseok was so unique.

My family left for Chuseok Thursday afternoon, but I had school and couldn't imagine living out of a small backpack for five days. You see, Korean culture is as such: you have two pairs of paints and maybe (**maybe**) five pairs underwear (more likely fewer than five pairs. My brothers rotate through three each). So traveling means bringing one pair of pants, a few shirts and a few pairs of underwear. The four people in my family stuffed all of their gear into one bag about the size of the reusable ones you buy at the grocery store. Soap, toothpaste and all of those bulky cosmetics are not included. They just use what the host family has.

Well, when I travel with my family, I'm never sure what I should wear. It seems that whenever I bring hiking clothes, we always have a formal event and vice versa. So, consequently, my bag is always pretty big. My host dad has told me on several occasions that I am "high maintenance" and have "a lot of clothes" because I change into different clothes before bed. Good gravy.

Anyways, I spent Thursday night playing catch up and went to Suncheon with other Gurye English teachers on Friday. Saturday morning I started on my bus trek to Go heung (고흥) to meet up with the family. Go heung is a pretty decently-sized city, but it's about as far south as you can go before hitting the ocean. It's considered the country of the country (or rural of the rural). So, while waiting to be picked up at the bus stop, a woman and some taxi drivers trapped me on a bench and started firing questions away in rapid Korean. As I tried to answer and understand the best I could (for some reason, they thought that, when I didn't understand the first time, they should say it louder, faster and more slurred) the woman kept inspecting my hands, holding my hands and stroking my arms. Yes, my hands are bigger than yours. Yep, I have arm hair. Yes. I know you don't. Yes, it is quite soft.

Another taxi driver kept saying stuff about my blue eyes. Yep. They're blue. No, they're not brown. Yes, I can still see just fine.

My novelty wore off once they realized that I knew very little Korean and they eventually left me alone. I leaned back against the wall when the last woman walked away, took a deep breath and closed my eyes for just a little longer than a standard blink. This was going to be fun.

Dad picked me up. He noticed that I still had a nasty cough. He then spent the next five minutes explaining to me that I should not shower after jogging anymore because the cold water on my hot body is bad. He said that I should just change clothes, eat breakfast and go to school. I'm kind of worried about Monday. I can just picture me, hot and sweaty from a run, begging and pleading with him to let me shower before school.

Instead of going to the same country home as last weekend, we went to Grandma and Grandpa's home from the other side of the family. Their house was bustling with family. I think all of the traditional Korean stuff happens in the morning (or so I was told), so I missed the traditional Chuseok breakfast (sad!). But the rest of the day was suppose to be spent playing traditional card games or something like that. Well, my dad's side of the family just watched baseball (which was fine with me. I mean, c'mon. It's playoff season!). About 30-minutes since arriving, a string of more people crammed in. I was so busy trying to find the oldest male to bow to that I barely noticed Byeong Cheol (the kid from the first wedding) sneak up next to me. Thank god! Someone (a) my own age (b) who speaks English.

The newly weds were also there. The girl changed into a traditional hanbok and they both did a traditional bow ceremony. Then the family all gathered around the table and had snacks, wine and stuff.

Turns out that Byeong Cheol's dad is an oriental medicine doctor. He was giving Grandpa some acupuncture in the wrist when he turned to me, needle poised and face smiling. "Try everything once," I thought and stuck out my arm. He made some comment to which Byeong Cheol laughed (something about my skin being better than Grandpa's) and BAM. In went the needle. My first acupuncture. It was weird to see a needle just sticking out of your arm, but I didn't feel anything, so it was all Kosher in my book.

With my needle still in my arm, Oh-nee picked me up off the floor, saying something about going to her brother's house. I walked to the car, put my shoes on and dislodged the needle all at the same time. Talent? I think so. I said goodbye to Byeong Cheol (promising to give him a call when I go to Seoul) and piled into the car.

The other side of the family was more traditional. But we were rather late getting there, so the games were all over. Now people were either sleeping or making a traditional sweet rice cake. I squatted down to join in - anxious for my first dose of traditional Chuseok - when Oh-nee's brother (the man of the house who NEVER lets anyone forget it) pulled me outside and stuck me and his two sons in the gazebo where I played English tutor. All three of us wanted to be somewhere else.

But, we made good conversation and I got to know some of the Uncle's a little better. Uncle Say Hwahn and I really hit it off (he loves music and marketing...go figure!) so it ended up being a good time.

Me and Kenny - the younger of the brothers

We had dinner at a restaurant. As the food was coming in Kenny said, "This is a Buddhist restaurant, so everything is vegetarian." As soon as "vegetarian" left his mouth, the waitress put down a plate of squirming octopus tentacles. Fighting the urges to scream, recoil and puke I said (without missing a beat) "Except that, right?" And watched as Oh-chahn fought with a tentacle stuck to his chopstick.

That night we returned to Dad's side of the family, but everyone was gone except for us and Uncle & son from Seoul. The son - Min Seok: age 4 - is my new best friend. The next morning I knew that I had come unprepared as I watched my Grandparents, dad and uncle dress in hiking boots, sweatpants and workshirts. I had flip flops and corduroy jeans. Awesome.

Grandma and Grandpa are farmers, so Sunday morning we all partook in some form of farming. Oh-nee, my brothers, Min Seok and I dug up sweet potatoes (flip flops, cords...) while the others did field work. Eventually, Min Seok and I broke away and collected acorns. I never would have guessed that acorns would bring a 4-year old so much joy. The whole time he gabbed away in Korean while I nodded and pretended to understand. It was perfect.

Back at the house, Oh-nee sent me on a bike to deliver a mid-morning snack of beer and fish jerky to the field workers. The bike was once a 10-speed, but is now broken and stuck on speed-2. That made traveling over the flat terrain slow and wobbly, but pretty funny. I delivered the goods and agreed to a cup of beer (to which my Dad said, "One shot"). There I was, chugging foamy beer in a field with farmers at 10:30 in the morning somewhere in the deep southern mountains of South Korea. I love Chuseok.

Below are some pictures I took on the way back to the house
We left for home with the Uncle and Min Seok, who curled up on my lap and began snoring softly within the first few minutes of the ride. 7 people in a 5-seat car. Fun fun! We dropped them off at the bus station in Suncheon before heading back to our little Gurye.

So, very much like the rest of my family weekends in Korea, Chuseok was fun, relaxing, confusing and chaotic. I'm happy to have done it, but I'm glad it's over. I only have to teach on Monday next week because of Midterms and a Fulbright committment. This will probably be my last post for a week. (That's why it's so long, haha)


  1. Thanks for the post. What an adventure.
    High maintenance -- He has no idea what high maintenance is. My irish motherly ire is up.

    I think as you have respected the Korean culture, they should also respect your American culture. And it shouldn't include when you take a shower or how you pack given you never know what to expect.


    Have a great week.

  2. Acupuncture??? Did it help? Sounds like family and holidays, no matter what it is, are important if both cultures. Hopefully, the next family gathering, Kenny will be there also, as it sounds like you both get along well and can have a good conversation.

    Keep packing your bag, take a shower after running, and doing whatever you want and need to do. I agree with your mom in that they have to respect your culture as well.

    Not sure what the Fulbright commitment is, but hopefully you will be with your group from the beginning, and be able to spend a week speaking English, showering, running and have some good eats.

    Have a good week, and we love you lots.

    Aunt Sandy and Uncle Jeff

  3. Awsome... I had fun reading about your chuseok experience with a big family. It's sort of sad too that I completely forgot about chuseok this year. Not that we do anything, but I usually know when it is... well, I used to. When the kids were little for a few years, we went to a picnic organized by some association of Korean scientists/engineers, usually held on the Fermilab campus. From my childhood, I remember the food, the rides to grandmother's grave, the crisp fall weather, and the ubiquitous cosmos flowers on the hills.