Sunday, January 25, 2009


Use Korean Holidays to Track Your Family Ranking

Three and a half years in Korea, and I still don’t really know what’s going on around here.

Within my first year in this country, I found out that the two biggest holidays were Chuseok and Seollal. I knew that the dates for both of these holidays depended on the Lunar Calendar, with Chuseok happening in either September or October, and Seollal in January or February.

But since I had not grown up with these events as part of my culture, they had to be explained to me in a context I understood – American holidays.

Chuseok is the Korean Thanksgiving,” many foreigners and some Koreans told me. I suppose it is similar in that families gather together to offer thanks; the comparison breaks down after that, though, because Chuseok celebrants tend to eat five-10 pounds of less turkey per person, and there’s a distinct lack of Dallas Cowboys on TV.

Seollal is the Korean New Year’s Day,” I was told. It does bear a basic similarity to New Year’s Eve, in that family members and friends wish each other well in the year ahead. Seollal is not, however, a time in which people make futile resolutions to lose five pounds (not counting the seven they’ve gained since the holiday meals began), and there’s a highly palpable lack of events involving Dick Clark.

The foreigner with no familial ties to Korea is prone to seeing the event as a little more than a few days off from his/her teaching job. In order to really grasp what Chuseok or Seollal is about, you need a Korean spouse, or at least spouse-to-be. Once you have one, you can see the true meaning of the holidays: seeing where you rank in the family.

At the summit of the Korean family is the oldest living relative. In America, the oldest living relative’s role during holidays often consists of sitting in their favorite chair and looking serene, but in the Korean language, this person has an actual title, one that translates into “Big Father” or “Big Mother”*. Furthermore, they have the authority to require their younger relatives to navigate Korea’s brutal holiday traffic and arrive at their house on time for the Chuseok/Seollal meal.

Once they’ve arrived, the women of all ages work together to prepare the holiday meal, while the men perform their chief holiday duty of sitting on the couch, chatting and watching TV (I found that custom easiest to adapt to, for some reason). Once the food is prepared, the Patriarch or Matriarch leads the younger family members in paying honor to the relatives who’ve already passed.

The different family members choose which food item they would live to “give” to their deceased ancestors, then they bow. Yeah, it seems an odd holiday ritual at first, but once you’ve taken part in it a couple of times it makes at least as much sense as waiting for a brightly-lit ball to drop or searching madly for decorated eggs.

After that comes the bowing to living relatives, as the younger family members pay honor to those who are at least a generation older. The older members wish them good luck for the year ahead and, if they bowing person is a child, can require them to sing a song. In return for being the complete center of embarrassing attention for a couple of minutes, the child receives money.

Last year, as Catherine, my wife-to-be and I made preparations for our wedding, the Korean holidays were an opportunity for me to demonstrate that I could pay homage as well as anyone from a less individualistic society. After bowing to our older family members, they would wish us a successful marriage.

This year we were no longer the focal point during the holidays, as a new year brought a new wave of younger people preparing for their own weddings. My wife’s cousin made the rounds at our family get-togethers with her husband-to-be, who is actually a year older than me, but since his wife-to-be is a year younger than Catherine, he had to call me “Big Brother.”

I don’t know why it works that way, but I have no complaints.

Also, since this was our first year together as a married couple, our niece was instructed to bow to Catherine and I. After that, we gave her some money, told her to study hard and requested that she sing a song. It’s a feeling of privilege, and maybe by next year I’ll have thought of a number other than “Yellow Submarine.”

This year was unusual in that most of these events took place on or around Jan. 1. At the time I felt rather inconvenienced by the traveling and the bowing, especially since Seollal was to take place at the end of the month.

“Aren’t we just going to have to do this all again on the 25th?” I remember griping in a distinctly American accent. Actually, I found out later, we wouldn’t. The family elected to undertake its usual festivities on the Western New Year this time around, meaning that Seollal would pass with my wife and I not attending any family functions. It was more convenient, but it meant no one would be bowing in my presence or have to sing a song for me.

And I thought I was just figuring out what goes on around here.

* My wife has asked me what would we’d call this person in English, and it’s be very entertaining to listen to her try to pronounce “patriarch” and “matriarch” ever since, as has watching her try to remember which gender these words correspond with.

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