Beginning One Year and Ending Another

Seollal aka Lunar New Year

This year February 8th was Seollal, or Lunar New Year. Despite it being one of the two biggest holidays in Korea, last year Seollal slipped by without a single blog post or mention. So this year I’m making sure to write about it, but…there isn’t a whole lot to say. I’m getting to a point where “life in Korea” often just feels like “life.” Just life. Normal life. I’ve been to nearby tourist attractions so often that they’re not special or exciting anymore, but I swing by just for a scenic walk. My excitement about Seollal (in February) and Chuseok (in September) has also faded. With four of these holidays under my belt, I can predict exactly what they’ll be like year after year.

On Seollal, my extended family gathers at my grandparents’ house in Busan during the evening. This time, I was surprised to find that I wasn’t the first person there, since my eldest cousin and her new husband had already arrived from Gumi. Family from Suncheon, Seoul and even those living in Busan would trickle in later.

Although my family doesn’t do anything particularly special for Chuseok or Seollal, I really appreciate the time families in Korea spend to get together and see each other. Often, I think people see it as a burden, particularly women; when I ask my female coteachers how their Chuseok/Seollal was, they always reply that it was tiring and/or difficult because of all the cooking and preparations they had to do. It’s in times like this that gender roles and hierarchy feel really prevalent. One of my cousins who just had a baby was now expected to cook and clean with the other women of the house. I’m not sure if it’s marriage, or having a child that automatically places a woman into that role.

What made this Seollal unique was that I met my uncle for the first time. He and his wife have been living in India for the past year on missionary work. Finally, they’re back in Korea, at least for now. My aunt-in-law had gone up to Incheon to meet her family during the holiday, so today I was only meeting my uncle.

Upon first seeing him, my uncle was very warm or expressive; I got nowhere near the welcome I’d received from my aunts the first time we met. But later, he gave me Seollal money – it’s customary for kids and unmarried family members to receive money from their grandparents and sometimes older relatives. I found out later from my aunt that this was rare for him to do.

With him, more than anyone else, I felt that we had some irksome cultural barriers, but nevertheless I’m glad I finally got to meet him. The next week, I stopped by the house again and met my aunt-in-law too. My Korean family have now all been met!

 

Graduations

The next thing to happen after Seollal was graduation! In Korea graduations happen in February, and the new school year starts in March. This year, as a result of my school culture, I didn’t even attend my school graduation. The graduation ceremony (졸업식) and ceremony for sophomores and juniors moving up a grade(종업식) were on separate days. My coteacher informed me that I didn’t need to be there for the graduation, but I had to be there on the last day, the종업식, because there would be a school lunch that day to say farewell to teachers who were leaving the school. So I skipped the Friday graduation, feeling a bit guilty, even though I didn’t know any seniors at my school anyway.

During the last day of school, the entire school went out to lunch and English teachers went out for coffee afterwards. A lot of English teachers in particular were leaving, and we said our farewells over dessert.

 

Gimhae Graduation

The day after my school ended, I went to the graduation ceremony at Gimhae Jeil HS, my former school. I repeatedly promised students and teachers that I’d try to visit them for graduation, and it was nice to make good on that promise. Most teachers were surprised that I did. With Janine, the current foreign English teacher there, I watched the graduation and enjoyed chatting with both my former coworkers and some new English teachers there. It was really, really wonderful to see everyone again. Unfortunately I spoke to hardly any students, just passing hellos to those who I did see. A highlight of my visit was running into one of my former YDAC students and having her exclaim “Monica!” and give me a big hug. I really love those kids.

Of course, what would a graduation be without a school hweshik? I ending up going to Gimhae Jeil’s school lunch too. I felt a bit out of place, especially since the new principal started to stare, probably wondering who in the world I was. In the end, I went and introduced myself.

I finished off graduation season by visiting my old homestay in Gimhae. I stayed for one night and mostly we just ate tons of food. This after attending my school hweshik the day before and Gimhae Jeil’s hweshik that afternoon. That was a lot of meat (I had “Korean BBQ” three times) within a very short timespan. But that’s nothing to complain about. The next week my Gimhae host sisters visited me in Busan. I guess it’s my turn to go to Gimhae again.

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