Posts filed under 'Food'

Koreans have a “beef” with America

Anti US beef posterI am beginning to understand what people meant when they told me “Anti-Americanism can flare up in Korea in a moment.”  I am also realizing anew how huge a gap there is our “international” news coverage in the U.S.

Many of you probably know that Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the U.S. in April.  It was the first time an American President invited a Korean leader to Camp David.  Both President Lee and President Bush would like to see the Korean-US Free Trade Agreement passed and both face an uphill battle in their Legislatures.

You may not know that Korea and the US signed a controversial beef import deal right before that visit.  Korea used to be the third largest importer of US beef.  Then mad cow disease hit one cow in the Pacific Northwest.   Korea limited imports to beef without bones.  About a year ago, they stopped imports altogether when they kept finding banned bones in U.S. shipments.  The new deal was supposed to reopen the lucrative Korean market and drive down amazingly high beef prices here.  I have paid $12 for a small, ordinary steak.

The Mad CowSince then, there have been growing protests.  First they were protests against potentially dangerous U.S. beef.  I noted in an earlier blog that I had to answer questions from students about whether I ate beef and was it safe.  Then some of the protests became anti-American government protests, as people felt the beef deal was a “give-away” by President Lee to the Americans in order to get the Free Trade Agreement passed. 

Now the protests are strongly anti-President Lee.  The beef deal was one more action by a President apparently deeply out of touch with the people who only 4 months ago voted him into office by a wide margin.  His approval ratings are hovering at the 18% mark!  Images of black-booted young policemen kicking fallen protestors have only heightened the tension in a nation which still vividly remembers military dictatorships.

Yesterday I was in Seoul to say some goodbyes and passed two separate protest marches.  One building had a banner depicting sick cows “Made in USA” and a worried consumer.  The subways had advertisements for Australian beef :  “Clean & Safe”. 

Australian Beef AdvertisementI feel perfectly safe, especially since I do not live in downtown Seoul.  No foreigners have been targeted, and the anger is clearly directed at the government - especially the Korean President and the U.S. Ambassador. 

This coming Tuesday is the anniversary of massive nation-wide protests against Korean dictatorship and there are expected to be rallies and marches all over the country.  I expect people at the University will be mostly apathetic - it is final exam week.  But I’ll be avoiding Seoul, just in case. 

I will also be curious to see what turns up in the U.S. newspapers.  Part of my goal in coming to Asia was to understand how people in other regions viewed the United States.  Now I understand a little of that.  I am also far more aware how much international news never shows up in the U.S. media, even when it directly relates to U.S. interests.  There is only so much bandwidth, and Clinton and Obama take up an awful lot of it.  Everyone here knows about Clinton and Obama.  How much do people at home know about Lee and U.S. beef?   

1 comment June 8, 2008

Three Milestones Reached

The steps to Enlightenment (Haeinsa)In the past two weeks, I reached two major milestones in my Korean life.  The vast gap between them tells you a lot about my life abroad.

Milestone #1:  For the first time in 9 months, I ordered food over the phone and had it delivered to my apartment.  I danced for joy when I hung up the phone.  Ordering food by phone is actually pretty complicated.  You have to know the words for (and pronunciations of) the food, ordering, delivery, and your address.  You have no chance to read body language or hand gestures.  You also have to field the unexpected questions:  Is a 10 minute delay ok?  We are really busy.  Do you want our special side order?  Such small things are really hard when you only have basic language skills!

Milestone #2:  For the first time in Korea, I gave a paper at an international conference without translation.  Ancient Kaya Clothing and meThe audience had people from a half dozen countries, but the majority were Korean.  All understood English, but about half could not speak comfortably in English.  Therefore after taking questions in English, I encouraged the audience to ask questions in Korean.  Only then did I have the horrible realization- the bilingual conference organizers had left the room to arrange the next panel and no one was available to translate the questions!

Professor Hwang and I imitate Korean royaltySo, for three questions in a row, I drew on my minimal knowledge of Korean, bi-cultural knowledge of gender issues, body language, and wonderfully helpful Korean terms in English (like “golden miss” - the Korean term for single women in their 30s with good jobs and no desire to marry).  I could not answer the questions in Korean, but I did my best with slow, clear English.  Afterward one Korean graduate student shook my hand and said in utter awe (and rather good English), “No foreigner has ever LET me ask a question in Korean before.  And you even UNDERSTOOD me!”

Her comment says volumes about the complicated relationship Koreans have with English.  She probably COULD have asked a question in English, but she WOULD NOT have.  She was not comfortable enough.  Just as I probably could have ordered food delivery a few months ago, but I did not want to get half way through my order and realize I had no idea how to say the word “delivery”!   Her distinction between my allowing her to ask a question and my understanding her Korean also shows she recognized that allowing the question was about respect, but understanding and answering it was about skill.  Leaving HaeinsaOut of sheer stubborn pride, I did not tell her I only understood 6 words in her 8 sentence question and I only knew that much because one of my Pyeongtaek University students had asked a similar question during my Race and Gender class.  I take my victories however I can get them!

As I expected, now that I have a clue what I am doing, I am headed home.  My third milestone was today - I taught my final class in Korea.  I will give final exams next week and I leave the country a little earlier than planned on June 22.   With luck I will come back to Korea at some point and get to use all this experience.  But if not, the learning process was a reward in itself - now I know I was up to the challenge.  Besides, ordering food by phone will never feel this good again.

1 comment June 5, 2008

Western-style Food that is Not Quite Western

Green Tea Breakfast Bran FlakesDuring my stay here, I have occasionally tried Korea’s version of western food.  It is never quite what I’m expecting.  Here are a few brief examples of not quite getting what you expect:

1)  Koreans do not usually eat cereal for breakfast so the selections in the local market were limited:  Frosted Flakes, Fruit Loops, and Bran flakes - in Green Tea flavor.

2)  Lotteria is the Korean McDonald’s.  Like western “burger and fries” restaurants, it serves a variety of hamburgers, including some very Korean items like bulgogi burger (marinated beef) and hanwoo burger (using Korean beef).  But the regular, ordinary hamburger looks just like its U.S. counterpart except for one detail.  Unless you specify, it will come with mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise AND steak sauce.

3)  Pizza is very popular in Korea, especially with young people.  At my local pizza chain, the basic standard pizza is about $5.00 per pie.  It comes with a crisp crust, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and…canned corn.  At the local Pizza Hut, you can get “Cheese Bite” pizza for about $20.  It comes with with spiced chicken and white and brown sauce.

Pyeongtaek Pizza Hut cheese bite pizza4)  Two students thought I might be missing U.S. food so they took me out for spaghetti and sauce.  The bowls were huge, the spaghetti perfectly cooked “al dente” and the sauce bright red with chunks of vegetables.  It was also achingly sweet and bitingly hot.  Clearly sugar and hot pepper paste rivaled the tomatoes as main ingredient!

5)  Shaved ice with fruit is a favorite Korean summer treat.  Slowly, frozen yogurt is becoming equally popular and one frozen yogurt chain, Red Mango, has now opened branches in California.  That chain’s basic “fruit and yogurt” is a mound of frozen yogurt (more tart than in the U.S.) covered with fresh fruit and fruit in syrup.  Very much like home.  Today I went to a local Pyeongtaek dessert place for “fruit and yogurt”.  When my bowl arrived, I so wished I had my camera with me.  Picture please:  One large bowl with shaved ice, covered in purple syrup.  Then a layer of corn flakes and fruit loops.  Then three towering twists of vanilla frozen yogurt, studded with banana slices, kiwi, apple and pear.  Topped with - cherry tomatoes.   It was served with two free slices of white toast - with whipped cream.

After these items, “fusion” restaurants take on a whole new meaning (smile).

1 comment June 3, 2008

Salernos in South Korea

Mom, Dad and traditional performerAs part of their 40th wedding anniversary trip to Hawaii, my parents made a detour to South Korea.  As my mom noted, it was not the top of their “foreign destinations” list, but it had me, so that made it pretty attractive.  My parents have not left North America in 40 years, but they handled customs and immigration like pros.  Here are a few highlights from their trip:

1) A bus tour around Seoul (which meant _I_ finally understood how this city was laid out!).  Seoul from the Cable Car

2)Dinner at a Buddhist restaurant which covered the table in small bowls of tasty vegetables and ended with traditional Korean dancing and drumming.  I was really impressed that my parents managed to sit on the floor for over two hours.

3)  Shopping in Insadong, a traditional (and touristy) shopping area.  My Dad commented that this was what he expected of “the teeming masses of Asia”- densely packed streets, crowded buildings, lots of alleyways crammed with shops, a profusion of brightly colored goods.  It contrasted sharply with the skyscrapers, elegant sculpture, large parks, and Rodeo Drives of modern Seoul.  There my mom noted “I have never seen this many Louis Vitton advertisements, even in America!”

Traditional House at folk village4)  Touring a folk village in Yongin.  We saw houses moved from various parts of the country, with rice thatch roofs, rice broom-swept courtyards, hand carved kitchenware.  It was hard to believe that my colleague’s grandparents lived in a home similar to these into the 1970s.  Change has happened really fast here.

5)  Meals with colleagues.  Many of my colleagues wanted to meet my parents, and honor them with a meal.  So we had lunch at the National Museum with a member of the U.S. Embassy staff, her mother-in-law and her daughter.  Another evening we roasted duck over a fire with two colleagues, and then we had lunch at a famous soy sauce making restaurant with another two colleagues.  Soy sauce and soy paste jarsIn six days, my parents had six kinds of kimchi and close to 100 different kinds of Korean food.  They were great sports, trying everything once, and finding they liked almost all of it.

6)  Meeting with students.  Due to a scheduling conflict, my parents visited the Korean Presidential Residence (Cheong Wa Dae or the Blue House) along with students from my American Political Culture class.  The students were outstanding ambassadors, providing translations of the Korean tour information.  My parents also attended my study group where students took full advantage of the chance to talk with foreigners who also happened to be Professor Salerno’s parents.  Meeting with English-speaking foreigners is still pretty rare in Pyeongtaek, so having three in a classroom was pretty special.

The Korean My parents enjoyed being elders in a country that has traditionally honored age (although that is rapidly and unfortunately changing).  I was fascinated to watch people who have always acted the “senior” role with me, suddenly acting the “junior” role with my parents!  It affects how people shake hands, pour drinks, drink drinks, and prioritize desires.  I think my parents liked best all the children who would come up to them and shyly ask “Where are you from?”  and then ask to have a picture taken with the friendly foreigners.  Many ran off giggling. 

One interaction may serve as a summary for the trip:  Walking up the _steep_ hill to Namsan tower, my mom asked four middle-school girls what they were eating.  “Ochingo” one said, clearly struggling for the English.  “Squid” I translated and they nodded and giggled.  American Political Culture Class at Cheong Wa DaeA huddled conference followed and the girls then offered their food to my parents. Remembering that it is impolite to reject offerings of food, my mom accepted and everybody smiled - a cultural interaction successfully negotiated.  Food, giggles, language, and culture on the way to a scenic view.  It was a great trip.

1 comment May 24, 2008

“Anti-Americanism” and the University Campus Festival

American Studies Band ChaosFrom Tuesday to Thursday this week, Pyeongtaek University students have been partying.  Each department had a booth for cooking food, games of chance, tarot card reading or whatever they wanted to do in order to bond together and raise money.  I had a ball trying to catch fish with paper nets, tossing coins onto “roulette boards”, eating some quite good Korean food, and laughing with students.   Events occurred continuously in the new amphitheate, from student band concerts to plays to the May Queen competition.  Most of the bands sang American songs in English (although I’ll have to take their word for it - I can’t understand the English in most rap songs even when the singers are native speakers).  In the evening (after sane people went to bed), major Korean singers performed, ensuring students rarely made it to their not yet cancelled morning classes. 

The Mad American CowAt the same time, the front page of every newspaper has been blaring news about protest rallies in Seoul, demonstrations in the street, planned strikes by workers and students, and ministers apologizing.  People here are quite worried about the resumption of U.S. beef imports, fearing that insufficient steps have been taken to prevent mad cow disease.

It is easy to see that much of the beef issue has been hijacked by opposition politicians and anti-American demonstrators.  I have had students write to me and ask me for a calm explanation of whether it is safe to eat U.S. beef because they do not feel like they can get answers anywhere else.  From the newspapers you would think Koreans hated Americans and feared we were specifically trying to kill them with tainted meat.

But the reality was made clear at the University festival.  In one corner, the Mad USA Cow.  For about $1.00 you could buy three water balloons and pelt your friends, while they pretended to be the cow.  In another corner, Korean students cheered wildly while five U.S. soldiers tossed coins onto a board of numbers, sometimes winning coins, more often losing everything they threw.US Soldiers playing a game  The American Studies department proudly sported their tee-shirts with ”We are different” on the front and the big A for America on the back.  Whatever the students’ concerns may have been about U.S. beef, they had no concerns about Americans.  One soldier said to me, “I never thought people would be this friendly.  They don’t sound friendly on paper.”   That contradiction is absolutely crucial to understanding Korea.

Add comment May 9, 2008

Telling the Season by the Color of the Rice Field

Rice Furrows FloodingOne of the best parts of my life here in Korea has been walking the rice fields and neighborhoods near my apartment at least three times a week.  I love being able to mark the change of seasons by what has been planted, how it is growing, or whether it has been harvested. 

This part of South Korea has Washington D.C. weather, so gardeners are already putting out their tomato, pepper and basil seedlings. (New Hampshirites cannot do this until mid June unless they provide frost protection!).  Every evening, people drive, walk or bicycle to their fields, where they plant, water, hoe, or weed.  I am clearly in Korea when people water their plants with the large copper pots used to heat water for tea in restaurants, and when they plant 80-100 hot pepper plants for the hot pepper flakes and paste that turn up in many Korean dishes.

baby rice ready to transplantThe rice fields have undergone a dramatic change over the past month.  What were dry, brown, stubbly fields first turned muddy and black as water began to seep into them from irrigation canals that line every field.  Some farmers started before others, so the land turned into a patchwork of dry and damp, black and brown.  Now the landscape is brown and silver as the light reflects off blue grey water in the middle of otherwise landlocked fields.  Long, thin, bright green stretches divide the fields.  I thought these were weeds, but sometimes they are wild herbs, allowed to grow rampant and then picked for soup.  Baby rice plants have been growing in plastic tunnels, odd white or black humps in flooded fields.  The shocking vibrant green of the baby plants tells me what color the fields will turn next, when the rice is transplanted.

removing the plug to flood the fieldThe irrigation systems here are pretty amazing and they must be created, maintained and used cooperatively.  Farmers remove plugs from the holes in the ditches, or use pumps to flood their fields.  They have to be careful not to flood their neighbors’ fields, nor to siphon off so much water that their neighbor cannot flood his own field.  As the fields flood, the water birds have returned.  Each evening I can see four or five large white egrets and at least one blue heron.  Frogs must be quaking in fear.

At the edges of the fields, apartment buildings creep slowly forward, an enemy far more deadly to the peeping and croaking frogs.  Farms and farmers are an endangered species in Korea, as in the U.S.  Hard work dependent on the weather bringing little monetary return is not appealing to younger people and they head for the cities as quickly as apartment buildings head for the fields.  silver fieldsExcept when I am waxing nostalgic, I would not want to be a farmer.  But we lose something precious when we cannot walk a neighborhood and smile at our neighbors, ask about their gardens and farms, and buy fresh greenery at the farmers’ market knowing exactly where it came from.  We lose something precious when we cannot tell the changing of the seasons in the colors of the field.

Add comment May 5, 2008

Bird Flu

This is a “just in case you were worried” public service announcement.

Bird flu is spreading rapidly among poulty in South Korea at the moment.  The latest outbreak is in my town, on an isolated chicken farm.  The national alert level has been upgraded from yellow (alert) to orange (alarm) and all poulty within three miles of an infected farm is being slaughtered by members of the Korean army.

While the strain of bird flu is the most virulent, and the only one known to infect humans, there is extremely low risk of anything happening to me.  You really need to be a chicken farmer to be at risk.  There is a poultry farm on my daily walk, but I am avoiding it.  It does not have any birds at the moment.  I am avoiding all food with raw eggs, and ensuring that any eggs I do eat are cooked to over 164 degrees F, the temperature that kills the bacteria.  This is also true for chicken.  I am also, just in case, avoiding all the cats in my neighborhood, since they eat raw birds when they can get them and can be a disease carrier.

We now return you to your previously scheduled activities, hopefully without worry.

1 comment April 21, 2008

Waegwan Abbey: Background and Stories

Waegwan ChurchWaegwan is a small but rapidly growing town, about 2 ½ hours southwest of Seoul and one hour north of Busan.  The Abbey backs up against the U.S. military base Camp Carroll, where the few remaining German monks sometimes eat breakfast.  There is a 1909 Catholic church and about 15 other buildings.  There used to be a large, welcoming chapel, but a catastrophic fire on Good Friday last year burned the chapel and half the monastery building.  While no one was hurt, the abbey is scarred and the gardens have given way to ripped earth and twisted concrete.  Daily prayers are sung against the rhythm of a pile driver breaking up concrete foundations. 

When I arrived at Waegwan, I was a bit overwhelmed by my own unconscious assumptions.  Even though I had read about Waegwan’s growth and success, I expected a small place like Saint Anselm.  former Waegwan chapel and gardensPhysically, it is smaller than campus, but its reach is international and its outlook is global.  The monks are part of the Ottilian branch of the Benedictine family (there are 21 branches). The missionary vision of that house infuses life at Waegwan.  Abbot Simon Ri kindly explained the history of the place, mentioning visits with two Popes, annual travels to European conferences, and work with the government in China.  This fall, Waegwan will host the international gathering of Benedictine Catholic abbots.  Even after 8 months in Korea, I had ignorantly assumed a Korean monastery would be somehow “underdeveloped,” regional, limited.  Instead Korean seminaries are packed, graduating 150-180 priests a year, and Waegwan exports gold vessels for mass, stained glass, Catholic publications, and even monks.  In addition, there are more than 500 oblates (lay people pledging a vow to a monastery) at Waegwan with hundreds on a waiting list.

Door to ChapelMy experiences with Benedictines suggest that prayer, food and hospitality, not always in that order, are central aspects of Benedictine life.  Here are three stories about those things at Waegwan:

A petite Korean woman in a polyester warm up suit and purple high top sneakers entered the chapel.  She sat with 20 other women and a few men, all on retreat.  There were 55 monks at the front of the room, in six long lines.  A few were German, white faces amid Koreans. The monks ranged in age from early twenties to late seventies.  Two whole rows of monks looked like a college basketball team. 

Waegwan Chapel from the BackVespers on Friday night, followed by Compline.  Matins Saturday morning.  Midday mass on Saturday, then Vespers Saturday night.  Matins Sunday morning.  We followed the traditional Benedictine rhythms, singing the psalms, hearing Bible readings, standing, bowing, sitting, standing, bowing.  My legs burned from the exercise, but I realized it was keeping me awake and alert despite the earliness or lateness of the hour.  When mass began, the polyester and high-top wearing woman reached into her purse and pulled out a delicate lace “mantilla”.  Carefully she covered her head.  As if snow had started to fall in the chapel, white lace coverings fluttered onto dark heads bowed in prayer.  A few younger women sat uncovered, but even they never crossed their legs.  While the head covering may be an imported western tradition, the other is pure Confucianism.  A respectful Korean never crosses their legs before their elders, or apparently before God.  The prayer began.  “Aboji,…” Aboji means Father.  It is one of the few Korean words that sounds anything like Latin - Abba, Abbot, Father.  I wonder if this is a coincidence.

Waegwan Abbey Guest Dining RoomAfter almost every prayer service there was a meal.  I ate alone or with one monk in the guest house dining room.  My guide and dinner companion was Brother Luke, who also oversees the kitchens.  Fresh-baked white bread, orange slices of cheese in plastic, homemade strawberry jam, and hot frothing milk arrived with every meal.  These seemed to be standard fare, not chosen for the visiting American.  At my first meal enough food arrived to feed 6.  Gradually the portions were scaled back but I still left more food than I ate.  When Korean and Benedictine hospitality meet, it is a formidable event.

Let me stress here, that I still look the way most of you remember me. I am 15 pounds lighter and my hair is longer, but as you can see from the pictures on,  I look like me.  This will be relevant in a minute.

Saint Andrew Kim TaegonAt the last service of my last day, I was the only non-monk in the chapel.  All the retreat participants had gone home.  The only non-monk, the only woman, the only foreigner - I was definitely wondering if I had read the program wrong and broken some rule!  But no one asked me to leave.  After the last prayer finished and all but one monk had left, I headed for the exit.  The last monk asked me to wait.  Each day he had brought me a prayer book, with each song and reading marked with a series of ribbons.  He did not seem to notice that I never turned pages when everyone else did, or that I did not sing.  I was still reading line one when the monks responded to line seven, and it took two days for me to puzzle out the Korean word for “prayer’.  Yet today he had seemed terribly startled when he handed me the prayerbook.  I had worried about it during the entire service.

“Will you be joining us for prayer every day?” he asked in English.  “No I have to leave today,” I answered.  “Thank you for preparing the prayer book for me.”  “Ah,” he said, looking suddenly embarassed, “I thought you were Korean.” 

Welcoming the stranger as Christ and the American as Korean - that is _really_ Benedictine hospitality.

Add comment April 17, 2008


Sharing holidays in Korea has been one of the best parts of my stay here.  You can see previous blogs for discussions of Korean Thanksgiving (Chuseok), Halloween and American Thanksgiving.

This month the students shared a holiday triple-play with me and I shared one with them.

I thought Americans made a huge deal of Valentine’s Day.  Flowers, chocolates, red and pink hearts, candy, music:  February is always a bit overwhelming.  But Koreans have taken the idea of Valentine’s Day to a new level, turning it into THREE separate holidays.  Here’s how it works:

On Valentine’s Day, tradition here says that girls should give their boyfriends chocolate and a gift.  Flowers are way too expensive in February since everyone is already buying them for middle school, high school and college graduations.  But what do guys get girls?


Yep.  Guys get girls nothing for Valentine’s Day.  ( I can hear American guys cheering all the way over here).  But wait.  This is because the true Korean Valentine’s Day is in March - March 14 to be exact.

On “White Day”, guys buy girls flowers or candy and a gift.  While I was surprised the advertising for Valentines’ Day was so ordinary, this is because White Day is the BIG day.  Candy baskets cascade into the street and florists have a waiting line.  In my March 14 class, I was interrupted by the delivery of a dozen red roses and a chocolate cake from one girl’s boyfriend, studying abroad in Australia.  (I didn’t notice but I’m sure the guys in the class just groaned, watching the ante get upped before their eyes).

THEN on April 14, Koreans celebrate “Black Day”.  In America, single people tend to protest the overwhelming “couple” focus of Valentine’s Day by wearing black and hanging out with their single friends.  Here there is a whole day for doing that.  Same-sex friends, whether single or dating, give each other chocolate and flowers and spend the day together, celebrating friendship.

Hallmark has a whole new market to explore here.

In return, I shared American Easter with my students.  It is hard to believe but Korea has no Easter bunny!

Korean Christians celebrate the spiritual holiday of Easter, but the holiday does not seem to have a secular component the way it does in the United States.  No Easter baskets, no pastel-colored malted milk eggs, no towering displays of chocolate bunnies, no Easter egg dying, no Easter egg hunts.  It is as if the Christian holiday arrived in Korea stripped of the pagan celebrations of spring inherent in the eggs, the pastels, the little bunny rabbits.

My husband and parents, guessing I would want to share “American” Easter with my students, sent me plastic Easter eggs, Easter “grass”, and all the traditional candies.  So I began all my classes this week with questions about Easter in Korea, discussions of the Christian holiday, and then explanations of the other ways Americans celebrate Easter in addition to going to church.  The students were a bit baffled; to be fair “secularized” religious holidays are a bit baffling.  But on a warm, sunny day, it was easy to understand celebrating the return of spring, the rising of the world from the death of winter. 

The discussion of holidays pointed out one more interesting piece of culture.  Whenever older Koreans visit each other or give a hoiliday gift, it tends to be food.  Cartons of fresh fruit, decorative boxes of Spam, gift-wrapped containers of hand-made kimchee, even bottles of olive and grapeseed oil.  The younger generation likes any excuse for chocolate.  So how long will it be before foot-high Easter bunnies are all the rage in Korea?

1 comment March 23, 2008

Seollal or Lunar New Year

Ancester Veneration Ceremony Set-UpKoreans have traditionally followed two calendars, the solar one we use in the West and a lunar calendar.  About half of Korea’s holidays are set by one calendar, half by the other; therefore my cell phone provides me the date in both calendars!  This year Ipchun or first day of spring fell on February 4th.  Usu or first rainfall of the year should fall on February 19th (I hope “first rain” also means “last snow”!).  Seollal is lunar new year and it fell on February 7th.   It is one of the two biggest holidays in Korea.  The other is Chuseok or Korean Thanksgiving (see blog entry at

On both Seollal and Chuseok, families travel across the country to their parents’ homes or the home of the eldest son in the male line (women usually travel to the husband’s family’s home).  A colleague from Pyeongtaek and his wife kindly invited me to join their family celebration.

Seollal FoodWhen I arrived in the morning, the women of the family had already been shopping for over a week and cooking for two days.  The only male cooking responsibility is to peel the chestnuts.  The men also set up the calligraphy screen (in this case a wedding gift from the wife’s father), as well as the “altar” table.  Westerners have usually translated this celebration as “ancestor worship” making it sound incompatible with Christianity, but this family is devoutly Christian.  They have adapted the original tradition of “placating” the ancestors with wine, incense, fine food and sweet desserts in exchange for good luck in the New Year.  Like many Korean Christians, they continue the tradition as “ancestor veneration” or formally remembering their grandparents and great grandparents at family events.  (I can only imagine my deceased grandparents were a tad jealous  - my grandmothers would have been eager to try ”just a taste” of everything!)

After the food was set up on the table, the ceremony began which primarily consists of pouring a cup of rice wine, moving it in a circle three times around a stick of incense, and then formally bowing three times to show respect and remembrance.  The family did this for both of the wife’s parents and for the husband’s father.  Traditions are changing so fast in Korea that each family does the ceremony differently - some are very serious, some allow laughing and joking, some families wear traditional clothing or hanbok, others wear western business clothing.  In this case only the grandmother in the family and myself wore traditional hanbok.  Hers is the beautiful dress style.  Mine is called “practical” hanbok and is of much simpler material.

Seollal foodAfter the ancestors had a brief chance to “eat” the food, it was our turn.   Although there were only seven of us, there was enough food for dozens of people.  It will be eaten by visiting relatives for 2 or 3 days.   Traditional food includes two kinds of fish, beef, many kinds of egg pancake or jeon (dried fish, mushroom, pork, and vegetable), plus rice cake soup (ddoek guk), tofu, vegetables, and rice.  Dessert includes peeled raw chestnuts, dried pomegranates, fresh pears and apples, and a sweet rice drink called shikye.  This family added cheesecake this year! (If you click on the picture of the table, you will find a larger version of the picture and a detailed list of all the foods; you can also find it[email protected]/2257697200/ .

Children love Lunar New Year because in exchange for deep bows of respect and a willingness to listen to to a few minutes of good advice, they receive envelopes of cash.  This provides an incentive to sit semi-quietly in traffic for endless hours to visit less frequently seen relatives or other elders.  My colleague’s holiday tradition includes visiting his dissertation advisor, the founder of American Studies in Korea.  I like this unassuming and quiet “grand old man” very much, so I went along.  Sitting in a car for two hours traveling to Seoul reminded me of many U.S. holiday trips.  When the Korean radio station played Van Halen, Donna Summers, the Bee Gees and the infamous “Da Doo Run Run Run, Da Doo Run Run”  I was glad I had worn hanbok.  Otherwise I might have wondered if I had entered a time warp!

hanbokAmericans and Koreans may have different forms for their most special holidays, but the basics are the same - food and family.  Here perhaps there is also more emphasis on remembering the past and preserving family connections in a period of rapid and unsettling cultural change.  As Korea becomes a more global, multiracial and multicultural society, more and more families travel abroad during Seollal, taking advantage of the five day weekend to vacation.  But many still practice the older traditions, trying to adapt them to modern needs.  By inviting a foreigner to join them for the first time, both my colleague’s family and his advisor’s brought together past and future.  I am very grateful. 

Add comment February 11, 2008

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