Only two weeks into this gig and I was already looking forward to having three days off. This weekend marked one of the biggest Korean holidays, Chuseok (chew-sock), which has been described as “sort of like Thanksgiving.” Sure, if on Thanksgiving you eat fish soup and kim chee at 9 a.m., then bow to your ancestors in an elaborate ceremony and clear out by noon, it’s just like it.
I was invited to join my vice principal’s family for the holiday, and, judging from the reaction I got from my co-teacher, I got the impression that the invitation was an honor. I could hardly refuse, and besides, I was excited to partake in “real” Korean culture.
I had read that the holiday celebrates the harvest, like American Thanksgiving, and honors the ancestors of the family, unlike our holiday. I envisioned a big family dinner followed by some sort of ritual, so I was surprised when she said she would pick me up at school at 9 a.m.. Not keen on catching the bus at 7:30 a.m., as I do nearly every day, but I agreed. I thought the women would spend the morning in the kitchen, and I was looking forward to learning some Korean cooking.
My vice principal is a woman of approximately my age, maybe a little younger, whose name, near as I can tell, is Soo-sana Oh. Or as they say in Korean, with the family first, Oh Soo-sana. Yes, like the song.
Soo-sana picked me up and drove me to one of the thousands of non-descript apartment towers in Jeju City, where her sister was hosting the “dinner.” We were met by Soo-sana’s husband, who had just picked up her elderly parents. Grandpa (who looked a lot like Abe Simpson) was sitting in a wheelchair, and as they wheeled him into the building, I wondered if this building had an elevator. We foreigners have speculated that buildings don’t seem to get elevators unless they are over four floors, or a hospital. Sure enough, no elevator. Soo-sana and her husband (she never said his name) hoisted the old man out of the wheelchair and pushed and pulled him step by painful step up to the second floor.
Once inside they deposited him on the living room floor, which is not as inhumane as it sounds – Koreans do almost everything on the floor, from cooking and eating to sitting around playing games or watching TV.
Around the corner in the kitchen I met her sister, who had prepared a massive amount of food that was spread across the kitchen floor on various platters and in bowls. There were stacks of cooked beef and pork on skewers, octopi filleted with tentacles splayed, piles of dried fish, battered and fried vegetables, mountains of kim chee and bowl after bowl of unknown colorful side dishes. A room off the kitchen held a low table laden with fruit and food for the ancestors.
I presented the hostess with a bottle of Turning Leaf white zinfandel that I had purchased the day before at Emart. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to bring a gift, but thought it was better to err on the side of generosity. Now I know to Americans Turning Leaf is not a high-class brand, but they didn’t know that. Besides, it was either that or Spam – very popular with Koreans. When I told them the wine was from “Cally-for-nia” they seemed impressed.
I was told to sit at the low table in the living room with grandma and grandpa, and Soo-san and her sister began carrying food in on trays, not stopping until the entire surface was filled (see photo).
I thought there would be more family members, at least her two university-aged sons I had heard so much about, but it was just Soo-san, sis, the oldsters and me. Her husband was milling about in the background, but she said something about him eating with other relatives later.
By 9:30 a.m. we were tucking into Chuseok grub with gusto. Or, as much gusto as I could muster for fish soup and rice at a time when I would have killed for a Cinnabon and coffee. We had no sooner finished eating (about 15 minutes later) when the horde of relatives I thought would eat with us, arrived. Apparently their arrival post-meal was part of the plan, but no one spoke any English so I couldn’t ask. All the men were dressed in suits of a shiny gray material that seems popular here. About a dozen mostly young men and women, with a few small children, filled the three-bedroom apartment.
Soo-san introduced her sons, simply calling them “my sons.” I never did get their names. I had to tell them my name as she knows me only as Mrs. Miller. They were very handsome boys, but one kept petting the hair behind his ear, much like young, insecure children do while sucking the thumb on the other hand. Nervous I guess. I had been hoping they would be able to translate for me, at least give me a clue what was going on, but they avoided me as much as was possible in the confined space.
After a few minutes the men rolled out a tatami mat in the entryway, and brought out the ancestors’ table. One middle-aged man got down on the mat and made a deep bow in front of the table, held it for maybe 10 seconds, then got up. The table was then returned to the back room and the milling about continued.
After a few more minutes all the men got down on their knees, facing the room with the ancestors’ table, and did a deep, collective bow. I couldn’t see what was going on in the other room, but I think it was some sort of ceremony. Sorry if you expected this to be an enlightening look into the cultural ways of the “Hidden Kingdom” – I never said I was Bruce Chatwin. I pretty much didn’t know what was going on at any time during the event. A more extroverted person might have jumped in and asked lot of questions, somehow ferreting out information and winning friends in simple English and halting Korean, but it’s hard enough for me just being here, introvert that I am. If the definition of bravery is “feeling the fear and doing it anyway,” then I’m brave. I just sat quietly and observed. I also didn’t want to become the center of attention at their family gathering. I’m sure they were all keenly aware of my presence anyway.
Then, with the ancestors honored for another year, the men loosened up considerably. Every one took of their jackets and ties, carefully folding them identically and laying them across a chair back. A second low table was brought out to join the one we had eaten at, and the women brought out platters of fruit and my bottle of wine. After much discussion someone produced a Swiss army knife with a corkscrew for the wine. Two wine glasses were given to the grandparents, while the rest of those at the table got shot glasses. Nothing says Chuseok like a shot of white zin. Or three or four.
On to Sunrise Peak
After the party broke up, shortly after the wine sharing, Soo-san and her husband drove me back to my apartment. As the day was still young, I had time to pack up for the next adventure of my three-day weekend, an overnight trip to Seongsan Ilchulbong. Also known as Sunrise Peak, this is a peninsular land mass caused by an underwater volcanic eruption about 5,000 years ago. Rather than lifting the ocean floor, as some eruptions do, this one spewed forth magma until it reached an impressive mound, settling with a deep bowl in the middle.
While researching Jeju I noticed it listed repeatedly as a don’t-miss site. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and pretty impressive. There is a wide stone path that switchbacks to the lip of the caldera (crater), and affords amazing views to the west and back across Jeju to the east.
The trip included myself and three other teachers from this building: Karissa, Cindy and Julia; Mike, a teacher who lives in town, and John, who was assigned to teach on a tiny island off of Jeju. Karissa and Julie are 27 and 28, while the others are just out of college. The weather was not great, with rain clouds threatening, but we set off anyway. It’s only an hour and half away by bus, but it really felt like an adventure. We planned on finding a cheap hotel, called a minbok, although we had no idea how easy that would be, or if there would even be vacancies on a holiday weekend.
Fortunately we were “saved” at the bus stop by an old man who immediately struck up a conversation in halting English. And what a coincidence – he just happened to know of a minbok nearby and would be happy to lead us there. Now, anyone who has traveled outside of the U.S. or Canada knows this is the oldest trick in the book – find the unsuspecting tourists and lead them to your fleabag hotel that had been banned in all the guide books. Surprisingly the place he took us to was quite satisfactory – small and simple, but clean and ridiculously cheap. While the woman of the house showed us the rooms we mumbled amongst ourselves, trying to figure out how to tell her that we only wanted two rooms for six people. She apparently thought we were not happy with the price of 60,000 won (abut $60) for two rooms, so she dropped the price to 50,000. We were very pleased, and even more so when we found that the rooms were right at the base of the peak, with an amazing view straight up the face.
The town of Saensong is not much to write home about; a modest fishing village that looked worn out in the light rain that fell on the broken streets, piles of kelp and garbage-strewn beach. Walking along the waterfront I came across three large dogs held in small cages. They began barking ferociously as I stopped to look, from a safe distance. Poor things. I don’t know if they were guard dogs or if this was one of the areas in Korea where dog meat is still consumed. I need to find out how you say “dog meat” in Korean, in case I see it on a menu.
Our tour guide had also helpfully booked us a table at a seafood restaurant, although that severely limited the food choices for Karissa, who is a vegetarian with a seafood allergy. Good thing she loves kim chee. I ordered a dish I had been looking forward to trying since I read about it while researching Jeju – a porridge made from rice and abalone. It was good, and refreshingly simple. The others ordered a huge seafood stew, brimming and bubbling with every kind of creature you could pull from the sea locally: abalone, scallops, crab, clams, prawns, fish, snails and octopi, just to name the most obvious ones.
I went back to the room to watch TV while the kids bought fireworks from the local convenience store and went to frolic on the beach. The plan was to get up at 5 a.m. in order to hike up the hill and reach the top to greet the sunrise over the Pacific around 6 a.m. It’s only about a 20 minute hike for those in reasonably good shape, or 40 in my case. John and Mike had hiked up the night before, so decided they would try to get shots with the peak in front of the sunrise, as many travel photos show. My camera chose this moment to start flashing “low battery,” and of course I didn’t have the charger.
As it turned out, there wasn’t much to photograph. The clouds were too thick for the sun to penetrate, so the sky just lightened gradually and uneventfully. We girls had a good time at the top anyway, and they took enough photos to cover what I was not able to. The good thing is we will be able to come back! The peak itself is a fascinating lava sculpture full of caves and covered with rocky spires and dense jungle vegetation. I look forward to exploring it again, in sunnier weather.