Intrepid Girl Reporter


like water for Chuseok

The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth…among the sounds of night.

– James Agee, “Knoxville: Summer, 1915”

“Your name is Giant Super Deluxe Piggy.”

– Host Brother

In America, my father cooks the turkey.

I just want to clarify that. There are enlightened households, and mine is one of them, more or less, even though the turkey is only one of the many food items offered at Thanksgiving and (hello, 2005) occasionally it is not ready until after the rest of the meal is over, because deep-frying a giant bird is a lot more complicated than anyone anticipates.

But mine, I recognize, is in the minority, which is what made my first Chuseok much like an American holiday:  the womenfolk were in the kitchen, while the men sat around on the floor and watched television and made fun of each other, as best I could tell. I only caught snippets – I wanted to cook, so I found myself crouched on the floor next to some women who were probably somehow related to my Apa, scooping panchan (side dishes) into little bowls. Near me, a pot of that classic holiday food, seaweed soup, kept a rollicking boil. While we scooped and snacked on this sort of sunflower-seed brittle, the men were in the next room, doing something that wasn’t cooking. I’m not sure what it was. I think it involved sitting around and smoking.

My host family celebrated the holiday in what appeared to be an adapted manner:  we ate the food, but if an ancestral tribute was made, I missed it. Also, my host sister stayed home to study, or maybe to look at pictures of her favorite boy band, which has a name that sounds sort of like Tongbangshingee. The meal was bigger than usual, which is saying something; there was soup, fatty meat, pajeon (fritters), and a lot of variants on kimchi. Despite the holiday, Koreans still seem to eschew both napkins and drinks with their meals (unless that drink has at least 5% alcohol by volume), and my family was no different. I know this is going to sound ethnocentric, but really, Korea, a glass of water would do wonders for culinary appreciation around here. So would a dash of soy sauce on plain rice. For that matter.

Chuseok was actually the first extended time I’d spent with my family all weekend, which proved to be a source of tension. Saturday: City Hall wandering, Korean movie watching (“My Sassy Girl”? Highly overrated), noraebang-ing, further visits to the good people at Bagdad Cafe. Sunday: jjimjilbang, celebration with my friend G’s host fam for her host brother’s birthday. On Monday, from G’s house, I called home to check in and asked my Apa how he was; the short answer was, “Not happy.” Actually, our conversation went something like this:

IGR Apa! How are you?

APA (Korean Korean Korean)

IGR …Happy?

APA No. Not happy!

IGR Why?

APA Hillary (Korean Korean Korean)

IGR What?

APA (Korean Korean Korean)

IGR Because of Hillary?

APA Yes, because Hillary (Korean Korean Korean)

IGR I’m sorry?

APA (Korean Korean Korean)

Welcome to my life. So I came home, asked for permission to go to see my friend E (whose family had taken off for Seoul for Chuseok without her), and went to talk to my Apa at his business, which he was so busy cleaning that he refused to talk to me. So from Monday morning to Tuesday afternoon, all I knew was that he was mad at me, but not why. And either no one else knew, or they didn’t want to tell me.

So after the family deal we sat down yesterday and hashed it out, and it turns out that spending the night outside your home is bad manners, maybe for the family? Or maybe for the people with whom you’re staying. Also, you can sleep in DVD rooms, but you shouldn’t, because that puts you at high risk for mugging, apparently. He wants me to come home at midnight every night, but he’s offered to talk to my American parents and see what they think. Meanwhile, I’m totally sixteen again.

But aside from all that – aside from any program drama, any fatigue, the five million things I’ve put off for too long – last night I went to the playground with Oma and HB and HS and we all tried to climb the wall by running up it as fast as we could. Sometimes I wonder: can something be your best memory if you know, even as it happens, that it will become precious? But then I stop thinking about it and remember how it felt to scream on the swings under the full moon.

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1 Comment so far
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I love reading your journal. You are a really talented writer!

Comment by Laura J




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