Americans at the Chuseok Table
Happy Chuseok Everyone!
This weekend is Chuseok, “Korean Thanksgiving.” It is a three day celebration of the harvest time, but also traditionally it is an ancestor worship holiday. Well “worship” is a bit extreme, it is a time when people acknowledge and show respect to their elders and dead relatives. It is a big family holiday. There are big gatherings with huge meals involved in the celebration. Unlike US Thanksgiving there is no turkey involved. In fact, I asked everyone what dishes are traditional for Chuseok and only two things are mentioned: tarung tang and songpyeon. Of the two, only songpyeon was at every Chuseok table I attended. Tarang Tang is a taro soup made with beef broth, taro root, and special a Korean soy sauce. I guess it’s hard to make, where as songpyeon is easily purchased. Songpyeon, by the way, is a rugby-ball-shaped rice cake stuffed sesame paste or sweet bean paste. They are traditionally steamed on a bed of pine needles which impart their scent to the chewy sweet treats.
The harbinger of this particular holiday is the many “gift sets” that began to be displayed about two weeks ago. I thought perhaps they were back-to-school bribes for students’ teachers (high school is quite competitive here). When I finally asked I was told the gift sets (elaborate display boxes of French grapeseed oil and cans of tuna fish, the fancy Chivas Regal bottle with several matching glasses, a case of six of the hugest pears you’ve ever seen, or the 12-can Spam box set–all with special cloth carrying bags) are for Chuseok. The etiquette of the gift giving made me nervous–and I was jealous of the people I passed on the street with their nifty blue and yellow Spam carry cases. Okay, I must admit I became obsessed by the Spam gift set. But I was also overwhelmed by the cost, almost $50 US. Spam, it seems, is a powerful status brand here.
I was told repeatedly that as a foreigner I was exempt from this gift thing. It was still not clear who one gave gifts to and what was an appropriate gift. One Korean friend said it was nice if you made a gift of your own. Oy. Now what did THAT mean? When William (the Kiwi artist here) asked one of the Korean artists in the program about what was customary to give, he was told fresh fruit, food, or underwear. Underwear! We foreigners pondered our options. Should I give Parson Park and his wife, Hyun Mi, matching underwear?
We were paralyzed like deer caught in the oncoming headlights of the approaching Chuseok. Every fancy box of canned ham or panties on the street mocked our indecision. When do we give the gift, anyhow?
Then there was the question of the meal. I was invited by proxy to a meal at the home of the parents of Mr Park (director of SAP, not the parson) where William was now a homestay. The invitation became formal on Friday night. Mr Park sat down on my new studio floor where we foreign artists were eating a few Korean dishes I was trying to replicate.
“Justin,” he said, pointing to and addressing Chuck, “you, Chuck” pointing to William, “William. Elaine,” making eye contact with me at almost the right time. “Dinner. Chuseok dinner, my mother house, yes?”
“Yes,” we all say.
“When?” one of us says.
This is not a question he expected.
“What time?” one of us tries.
“Tonight? Saturday? Sunday?” I venture.
“Ah yes, Sunday!”
“What time?” I try again.
“What time lunch time?”
“Maybe one o’clock. My mother house.”
“Okay,” we all repeat in unison, “one o’clock on Sunday your mother’s house.” We all plan accordingly.
When I stepped out of my bedroom early Saturday morning, Hyun Mi was waiting in the kitchen. “Elaine, schedule? Your schedule? Today?”
I had agreed to go to Seoul to pick up a catalog from a curator I had just met. “Seoul Art Museum 3 o’clock.”
“Oh, Chuseok, today Chuseok. You know?” Yes I know. “Go my family Soongnam, makee food.”
Oh I want to make food, Chuseok food. I can not reach his guy I have to meet.
“Elaine, go Soongnam, back two here. Seoul Art Museum schedul-ee three. Yes?” Hell, yes. I think and hurry to get dressed.
As soon as I am in the car, there are phone calls made. It is clear the plan she has proposed to get me in the car is not the plan that might be unfolding. I have learned not to panic in these situations. (One day I will find myself driven to a place where I wake up with one kidney. But this is the risk one takes to eat native food.) We arrive at Pastor Park’s brother’s house. We women set to work making fritters and other dishes for the Chuseok table. I snap many pictures with my flour-covered hands. Pastor Park’s sister in-law is clearly an exceptional cook. Everything we make is delicious but I eat hurriedly while watching a video of a grandchild’s birthday party. Then I am sent directly to Seoul City Hall from Soongnam on the metro. Was that Chuseok? I wondered.
I return to the studio from Seoul hours later (all the way back I plot how to make grape jelly for Chuseok gifts). Mr Kim is locking up the empty studio. He seems happy to see me. “Elaine, huuuh, Elaine. Dinner come huh. Mr Park mother. Huh, Come now.” I shrug my shoulders and do as I am told. The SAP studios are dark and deserted, in fact the entire market seems to have shut down for Chuseok. It is 5:30 on a Saturday.
There are several low tables with many people of all generations sitting around them in the senior Park’s apartment. I recognize a few. Others share such a strong family resemblance I have no doubt they are from the same gene pool. There are other people, younger people, playing video games in one of the bedrooms. The aforementioned tables are crammed with many dishes of varying size and color. The main dishes and desserts all there. I wedge in and am handed my own bowl of rice. William is beside me.
“Me too, I had no notice. I ran out and bought a dried fish to give them. I guess it was not an appropriate gift. Mrs Park seemed confused.”
All the sisters-in-law were in the kitchen area presided over by the senior Mrs Park. The meal was endless. Empty dishes were refilled with steaming bulgogi or conch and kimchi. Once everyone had eaten, the tables were cleared away and we played a board game very similar to Parchesi except one throws sticks instead of dice. I caught Mr Park trying to cheat. My team won. Chuck showed up and was fed. We are all feeling good and jolly.
“Mr Park. Friday night. You said Chuseok we come here on Sunday 1pm.” I flip my palms up and cock my head in a questioning manner.
Park is a little drunk, but he is clearly processing his earlier miscommunication. Then with a spark in his eye he says, “Ah yes. Tomorrow only Justin!” and we all laugh, but William, Chuck and I are still very confused. Later in the night he clarifies, “Sunday lunch time, my mother’s house. Justin, Chuck, William, Elaine. Four men.” “Four MEN?” I say. We all laugh. It’s all as clear as the muddy, grass choked waters of the Anyang River.
Chuck, William and I go for a midnight run to EMart to try to buy Chuseok gifts to redeem ourselves. We are mostly successful.
I had decided we should make Rice Krispy Treats. It is impossible to find plain Rice Krispies in Anyang. We settle for cocoa krispies (called kokopabseu) The marshmallows, when we finally found them in EMart, were rainbow colored and stuffed with fruit jelly. We did not buy them. I find unfilled marshmallows at a local convenience store called “Buy the Way” the next morning. Our funny colored Cocao Krispy Treats are a big hit with the Koreans on the second day of Chuseok.
My warmest Chuseok wishes to all of you back home.