Chuseok Weekend, part II

Monday – Chuseok Day

After a false alarm the day before, I woke up ready to meet my family for real this time. But once again only my grandparents were home. Later my aunt called and let me know that everyone was coming over around 3pm. So I had breakfast, cereal this time, which my grandmother decided to try with me. At first it seemed a little hard on her teeth, but she thought it was fine, and even had it again the next day!

My host family and real family have both been very considerate when it comes to breakfast. Since Korean breakfasts are no different than any other meal, and my stomach is sensitive in the morning, I had a hard time adjusting at Jungwon University. However, my host family bought me bread and cereal within the first week, and my aunt immediately bought cereal the day after I arrived, when I had only mentioned eating cereal for breakfast in passing.

After breakfast I watched TV with my grandparents for a bit and then went upstairs to bum around. My grandpa surprised me by showing up and asking if I’d been to 문화아을, or the Gamcheon Cultural Village, which is just down the street from their house. We headed for the village, although I was at first unsure if we were going together. My grandpa is 95 years old, so understandably, long walks are hard. However, he walked me there, and said he would wait under a gazebo while I had a look around. I explored and took selfies, and there was still a lot to see, but I felt bad making my grandpa wait.

When I got back and showed him where I’d been on the map, I guess it wasn’t satisfactory. Haha. He said I should go again, and told me to meet him in another spot further down the street. But then he kept walking, so I followed to make sure I knew where to meet. At the edge of the cultural village, there was a hiking trail, and without hesitation, my grandpa headed down the path. I decided that he knew where he was going and would probably be back, so I continued my solo expedition. After looking around for a little bit more, I returned to the hiking trail entrance, and he wasn’t there. I walked down the trail a bit, but it lead to another neighborhood. I began to worry. At this point my mom had called, and I told her I was looking for grandpa. I continued going back and forth on the trail, and asked a couple I saw if they’d seen my grandfather. (In retrospect, they probably thought I was looking for an old white man.) Finally I found him waiting in the general area that he’d first gestured towards…

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The hiking trail where I lost my grandpa:

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It was a good time nonetheless.

3PM

My family finally began to trickle in! First my oldest aunt came back with her daughters, both in their mid-twenties, along with 보람 (Bo-Ram) who’s the same age as me. 보람’s family lives in Suncheon (this is my second aunt’s family), but unfortunately she’s the only one out of her family who could make it. She stepped into the house, and after seeing me, kind of just stopped in her tracks and stared. But I did the same. It’s a weird thing to see your cousin for the first time (excluding that time we were babies). In creative writing, sometimes a gaze is described as hungry or thirsty; I felt a bit like that. My eyes tried to take in everything about their appearance. It was the same when I first saw my aunt, then my grandparents. My mind tried to match the person up with pictures I’ve seen, but still, a picture can only capture so much.

We kind of awkwardly said hi and sat next to each other. Meeting and trying to communicate with a Korean person for the first time seems to go like this: Awkward. (Or impressed that I know any Korean at all.) Then there are some struggles. At first my aunt was impressed that my host mom could understand me so well and, it seemed, a little discouraged that she could not. But as we spend more time together, I guess people become accustomed to my broken Korean, are willing to try a few words in English, and/or go to our smart phones to translate when needed. Although things were a little awkward here and there between my cousins and myself, we managed and it turned out just fine.

Shortly after my cousins arrived, they asked each other “should we do insa (which means greeting)?” They then proceeded to line up in front of my grandparents and do a full-on kneeling bow – stand, kneel, forehead to the ground. Oops. Is that what I was supposed to do? My grandfather then gave them each 10,000 won (roughly $10). It’s tradition for the adults in the family to give the children (or grandchildren) money during Chuseok and New Years. When I arrived, I got 50,000 won ($50). Shoot. Was I grateful enough? I don’t think so. I’m sure I get some leeway, as a foreigner, but I felt a little bad.

Next my family from Seoul arrived! My youngest aunt lives there with her husband and two kids: an older girl and younger boy, both in elementary school. I also have an uncle, but he’s currently in India with his wife on a missons trip. We spent time chatting (as best I could) and getting through the initial awkward phase. Later in the evening, we had a delicious Chuseok dinner, courtesy of my aunt’s efforts the day before. It was delicious, 이모! Highlights were galbi jim, a kind of beef rib stew, with BIG pieces of meat, twigim/which is similar to tempura, and of course, rice cake – a Chuseok classic.

I actually have no Chuseok food pictures….incredible.

Tuesday: Shopping day!

Tuesday my two aunts, 보람, my younger cousins and I went to an outdoor market/shopping mall. We browsed around a lot, and had naengmyun, a cold noodle dish, for lunch.

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Afterwards we spent time window shopping at makeup, skincare, accessories stores. My youngest cousin 준호/Jun-ho was probably bored out of his mind. 보람 bought me lipstick as a gift and I got her some earrings. Her birthday is this month, but since she lives in Suncheon, I won’t be able to see her then.

Speaking of lipstick, femininity in Korea is…interesting. It’s different, of course, and there are a lot of the same problems and restrictive ideas we have about body image that we have in the US, but it’s also a different flavor. But that’s a topic for another post.

Next we went to a bookstore, two floors, nice Barnes & Noble or Borders-sized. (RIP Borders.) Eventually my excitement wore off, as I couldn’t read the books and my other younger cousin kept trying to get me to stop browsing. My aunt though, really wanted to buy me a book and insisted that there was an English section, and finally, I did find it. The store clerk I asked just gestured in the general direction, and the selection wasn’t very big, but I found And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini. I was a big fan of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, so I’ve been wanting to read this one since it came out. But like in college, I don’t seem to have much free time to read.

After the bookstore, my oldest aunt, 보람 and I went to Holly’s Coffee to kill time. We had plans to meet with one of my older cousins 예림(Ye-Rim) and her boyfriend for dinner. We chatted, took a lot of selfies, and played around with a beauty filter app.

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Dinner was two spicy seafood and beef dishes (the closest equivalent would be stew, I suppose).

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If you want to avoid getting your clothes dirty, many Korean restaurants have aprons you can use:

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Later that night there was an awkward (for me) interrogation of 예림’s boyfriend. For most of the time I had no idea what was going on. At one point 예림cried, and I still don’t know exactly why. I could only offer tissues.

Wednesday: Relaxing and Goodbyes (for now)

Wednesday was the last day I spent with my family, and a comfortably lazy day. My family from Seoul planned to leave at 2pm, and I would with my oldest aunt and her oldest daughter 예지 (Ye-Ji) after them. We talked, ate, and cleaned the second floor. Before we left though, 예지and I found the stash of old family photos. Next time, we’ll have a lot more to look through, but we had a good time being amazed and laughing over the photos with my grandfather.

My grandma and mom:

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While I held it together when saying goodbye to my youngest aunt and her family, I couldn’t when saying goodbye to grandma. But she patted me on the back and said, don’t cry, you’re close by, and we can meet again – something along those lines. Just like when I first arrived at my homestay, seeing my family for the first time brought up so much emotion that I felt as if I could cry at any moment. Unfortunately I think I’ve made a name for myself among my family as the emotional one. Next time they’ll definitely be watching out for tears.

My aunt and 예지rode the bus with me, and my aunt got on the second bus with me and said goodbye at the light rail station. There may or may not have been more tears.

My cousins and I have all exchanged phone numbers and Kakao IDs. 예지 and 예림each individually encouraged me to message them anytime, especially since they’re only in Busan, if I want to hang out, am bored or just want to talk. I plan to go to Suncheon to see 보람 and meet the rest of her family during my winter break. And I’ll be in Seoul from time to time (whether for Fulbright business or fun), so I can see my youngest aunt’s family again then. I feel like I’ve gained a massive network around Korea, though obviously my family means much more than a network. I am filled. I am content.

Korean Thanksgiving and OMIGOSH I’M GOING TO MEET MY EXTENDED FAMILY FOR THE FIRST TIME!

I’ll just say it again. I’M GOING TO MEET MY EXTENDED FAMILY FOR THE FIRST TIME! AHHH! (This is an excited AHHH.)

You know that feeling you get when something really great happens to you? Something so great that you keep questioning whether this is really happening to you? That’s how I still feel about Korea. Obviously not every second of the day – on the walk home today my feet hurt, I was sweating all over, and was already exhausted from teaching – but once I’m well-rested, it’s easy to let a huge smile find its way across my face. I love being here.

But all of this is made even more pronounced by that whole family thing. Since I came to Korea, people have frequently asked whether I have/when I would meet my extended family. But I didn’t want to rush into it (or I’m dramatic). I picture it as being a big moment, and while I don’t have any specific expectations, I don’t want our first-time meeting to be rushed.

That being said, Korean thanksgiving is a perfect time. Chuseok/추석 (pronounced chew-sock) or the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving, falls on this weekend. Like Thanksgiving in America, we get 3 days off of school, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. So my five-day weekend is almost here! During 추석, the entire family usually gets together. People give gifts, with lotion/body, fruit, and Spam gift sets, interestingly, being common. Spam is a big deal here. While I still don’t appreciate it, I wish I’d brought some from the US to give as gifts – it’s expensive! But back to추석 …

Before I left for Korea, my grandpa told my mom that he would meet me during 추석. I wasn’t exactly sure how and if it would happen, but now I’m only a day away from meeting him. My aunt will come from Busan on Saturday to pick me up, and I’ll spend my long weekend with her and other members of my family, until Tuesday or Wednesday. (We actually have Wednesday off because of a new Korean law enacted this year that says if a holiday falls on a weekend, employees still get an day off during the week. America, let’s follow suit!) So this is lengthy for a first meeting. I’m not exactly sure whose house I’ll be staying at and the language barrier will be a thing, but I’m excited! This year has already involved a lot of flexibility and a general willingness to let go of things that I would normally be concerned about in the US. If I wasn’t able to do this, I think the stress would overwhelm me.

There will be plenty of 추석details (and pictures!) next week.