The weeks leading up to Chuseok, Korea’s biggest holiday and comparable with Thanksgiving, the stores were full of overpriced gift sets with themes including Spam, tuna, dried fish, toiletries, seaweed, etc. I opted to purchase edible goodies like rice cakes, wine, cookies, chocolates, and fruits to bring for my family. Koreans tend to give usable gifts because nobody has enough room for space hoarding trinkets.
During the three day Chuseok holiday, everybody is off from work and travels to their hometowns and spend time with family. The Chuseok day follows the lunar calendar. This year, it happened to fall right before another holiday, Korean Independence Day, so many of us had a five day weekend. Following Korean Independence Day was my school’s birthday, so I had no school the entire week except for Friday! I was lucky to have such a nice time gap for vacation.
Many of my teacher friends traveled to islands or camped in a national park. Although I was initially jealous, I was also perfectly content with having the opportunity to spend time with my family and discover more of my roots. On Sunday, my parents and my sister, Vora, and I hopped in Appa’s car and took a pit stop to my kinappa (appa’s older brother, aka uncle). I walked into the apartment full of Koreans sharing the same blood as me. I met Appa’s other brothers, their wives, their children and grandchildren. One of my cousins, who I am supposed to call oppa, spoke English very well and was able to translate for me. I met my second cousins, elementary and middle schoolers, who were kind of adorable. Of course, they were hesitant to talk to me in English. I felt a bit overwhelmed, but everyone was welcoming. They sat us down and fed us absolutely delicious Korean food followed by songpyeon (rice cakes filled with different kinds of sweet beans and traditionally eaten on Chuseok) and fruit.
Completely stuffed, we hopped back in the car and sped all the way to Yeonggwang, the birth place of everyone in my family, including me. We quickly left the city and found ourselves surrounded by nothing but green grass and farms. It was gorgeous. We found our way to my maternal grandparents’ graves where my uncle and family were waiting. The tombs were placed right next to a farm growing sesame leaves, the fragrant leaf used as a side dish. I distinctly remember how the air smelled that day. Appa introduced me to my grandparents, their parents, and their parents. Suddenly, I began to tear up and feel overwhelmed. My ancestors were right in front of my eyes after being a mystery for 24 years. My sisters told me that our grandparents had kind hearts and loved their family very much. I’m regretful to have never met them, but I’m positive that my family lives in their spirits. If they were nearly as kind as my parents are, then they must be angels.
My family set plates of food and soju in front of the tombs before pouring the soju all over them. I guess it is a tradition to give nourishment to our ancestors as if they were still alive.
We departed the site and moved onto my paternal grandparents’ graves. After a short drive, we parked in the middle of tall grasses and proceeded to hike up a hill with sharp sticks poking me along the way. Eventually, we reached the hidden tombs. We enjoyed wonderful views of the village from the hill. I was told that it is a prime spot for a graveyard; location is very important to people and they are willing to spend big bucks for a proper site. My paternal grandparents moved on before I was born, so my sisters weren’t able to tell me what they were like. I bet they were tough and resilient like appa.
After paying our respects, bowing, and providing food, we went to the village of my birth place. It was small, quiet, and rural. Vora remembers being a kid and told me childhood stories, like the time her and Yumi were on a boat on the lake without paddles. They floated into the middle of the lake and had no way of getting back, so they cried and screamed for hours until someone saved them. I couldn’t help but laugh at the thought of my sisters being 5 and 7 adorable children being stranded on a boat. The stories made me wish I grew up with them.
Appa pointed to the house where he was born (by the way, the body language for born that Koreans do is strange and hilarious. They make motions from their belly and then start crying like a baby. Two grown Korean men did this to me). It was surreal! The house that they lived in was old and traditional from the outside with a modern interior. Anyone that passed by said hello to my family; it must be a small village.
If the day wasn’t busy enough, we scurried over to my aunt’s house, still in Younggwang, in an area consisting of a few local shops and restaurants. My aunt and uncle own a bicycle shop. Directly connected to their shop is their house. They welcomed us warmly with even more delicious food. My aunt just ate me up; she is a sweetheart. Her house was riddled with even more relatives and children running around. Vora and I chased around a cat and gawked at the cuddle factor. I miss hugging my cat!
I nodded off into a nap on the way home. Besides being stuffed, I realized that I hadn’t had a day of rest and perhaps not even a full 8 consecutive hours since I’ve been in Korea. Luckily, I managed to snag some napping time that weekend. My sisters were all tired from their long hours at work, and equally passed out. It was nice to lounge around in pajamas, eating a bunch, being lazy… things you do only with your family and close friends. We shopped, went to flower mountain, ate, took a nap, ate again, etc., etc. One of the verbs I know in Korean is 먹다, or to eat. I hear 먹, 먹, 먹 over and over again by everyone in my family. They always talk about eating. I started laughing when I heard it over a dozen times during breakfast and they caught on. They even started giggling because they were actually talking about what we will eat for dinner while we were eating breakfast! Omma’s food is the most delicious food I’ve tasted. Of course, I may be a little biased.
Without cats to laugh at and cuddle with, I paid most of my attention to my one-year old niece, Hayun. She is walking these days and saying a few words like “omma” and can understand certain commands. For example, if you say “yobuseyo”, which means hello when answering the phone, she takes anything that’s in her hand and puts it up to her ear like a phone. It’s one of the cutest things in the world. She also gets excited when Gangnam Style is played and even does the dance. Don’t believe me? Watch the video.
After a few days together, I parted ways with my parents and headed up to the big city with my Vora, Yumi, and her husband, Sangjin (who I address as Hyungbu). A few hours of being introduced to classic Korean songs and other good music, we arrived in at their cozy apartment in Hapjeong past midnight. We socialized over a beer and snacks. With their intermediate English and my limited Korean, we chatted about cultural differences between Korea and America and general attitudes toward life. It really warmed my heart to find out how similar our perspectives are. They are not like typical materialistic Korean girls just like I’m not an average American girl. We always sort of felt different from the general mindset and knew the world was too big to settle for what we were always taught.
The best part of the night was when we found out we all loved Rent, the musical. Yumi swiped out her phone and blasted Seasons of Love while all three of us sang like in a karaoke room. Hyungbu stared at us with big eyes in disbelief, “You are REALLY sisters”.