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Living with a Korean family - four Chuseok stories
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승인 2013.09.27  16:41:36
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▲ A typical example of ceremonial food laid out for the charye at Chuseok. Photo by Namwon030

This piece was jointly written by Allison Bautista, Ginger Whitesell, Marissa Lynn and Kristen Bialik. They are all part of the Fulbright program and living on Jeju Island. --Ed.

We’re fortunate enough through the Fulbright program to experience living with a Korean homestay family for one year. While a homestay can pose great challenges, it also offers immense benefits and wonderful cultural experiences. Here are four stories of Chuseok as we experienced it within our Korean homestay families:

Allison Bautist

Sometimes, the noise is so deafening, I can’t think straight. One particular evening, my host father had asked me a question in broken English and I couldn’t piece together a response. The TV was blasting Crayon Pop, the baby was crying, my brother was playing Cookie Run on full volume, and my sister’s phone was flooding with Kakao notifications. It was all too much.

During Chuseok, however, I saw a dynamic change. Every meal centered on conversation. My host parents played card games and joked with their siblings and in-laws between Charye. I even heard my chronically moody teenage host sister laugh until she couldn’t breathe.

Even the city seemed to experience a shift in atmosphere. I went on a walk at twilight to gape at the luminescent full moon and noticed a palpable silence blanketing Seogwipo. The neon that usually rode on the heels of sunset was sparse. The roads were empty and only small clusters of families roamed the streets, on their way to the next feast.

Chuseok was a time of reflection for my host family. We solemnly honored ancestors and were subtly reminded of the warmth of family. Though the streets, phones, and televisions were silent, our house was far from empty.

▲ Typical Chuseok food such as Korean-style pancakes, fruit and ricecake. Photo by Nesnad

Ginger Whitesell

A key component of any family gathering is getting the chance to interact with the most youthful additions to the family tree. The encounters vary wildly, from assertive and inquisitive youngsters trying to make an impression, to bashful kiddos hopelessly wishing to blend into the wallpaper. Interacting with my Korean homestay’s extended family during Chuseok was no exception.

After a brief but polite Korean introduction and numerous head nods around my extended host family’s crowded living room, I found myself ushered onto a couch with some of the older members. Shortly, a young Korean boy came up behind me, about half as wide as he was tall, with a silly grin on his face.

“What’s your name?” he beamed with pride, having mastered this introductory question.

“Ginger,” I replied, “Jin-jeoh. You know, like saeng-gang.”

The boy tilted his head briefly in confusion, ignored it, and launched immediately into his biggest passion: soccer.

“You...soccer play?”

“I think it is very fun, but I am very bad,” I answered, with overt hand gestures to help emphasize my response.

“Park Ji Sung?’

“Yes, of course! Daebak!”

“...know...Messi?”

I shook my head, “no,” as his eyes widened in horror.

“Ronaldo, know?”

And on he went, with me changing my answers periodically to watch as his face wavered between disdain and approval.

During our meal, I sat at a low table with the elders in my host family. Three boys, about middle school age, took over my previous seat. They stared at me with intensity and wonder as I readily gulped down spicy kimchi with my chopsticks.

“Hello!” one boy finally screamed before covering his mouth with a pillow. I smiled and said "hi" back, trying to coax a conversation from them. One of the boys looked a little familiar, and I scrutinized him as he tilted his head farther and farther from my gaze, trying to place where I knew him from.

“Ara Jung?” I inquired, the memories of a shy boy from my previous school coming back to me.

And in that moment of recognition, the former student rose quickly to his feet and fled from the house, the other two boys trailing closely behind.

Marissa Lynn

I am boney and inflexible, thus I find sitting on the floor for meals rather torturous. I squirm and fidget to try and find a more comfortable position but I never seem to be able to do so like my Korean counterparts. In this regard, Chuseok was a double-edged sword, with meal after meal of delicious food served while sitting on the cold, hard ground.

During our four Chuseok feasts, I tried to hide my discomfort and reduce my squirming; however, my host grandmother was quick to point out my improper sitting position. The sage 74-year-old halmeoni, or grandmother, noted that it is proper for anyone under the age of 80 to sit cross-legged on the floor. This comment came as I sat with my legs sprawled out in front of me like I was lounging on the beach. Embarrassed, I crossed my legs and cringed as I lost circulation.

I have to hand it to Korean grandmothers. Both of my host grandmothers could get up and down from the floor with ease and fold themselves into compact seated positions. When I think about my own grandmother sitting down to eat a meal from the floor, I cannot help but laugh. I can imagine the grunts and groans as she’d lower herself to the floor and the hoards of people it would take to pull her up again. Maybe during my year in Korea I will discover Korean grandmothers' secret to maintaining their agility. I hope to find it soon because at 22 I already feel like my grandmother while dining on the floor.

▲ Ceremonial food for a Charye, Photo by Joseph Steinberg

Kristen Bialik

At sunrise, we rose to meet the ancestors. The morning light was languid and the day had an air of slow, but deliberate purpose.

Each task was delivered with an unhurried precision, the kind of deep reverence mixed with stolid familiarity that accompanies a lifetime of repeated family traditions. I watched my host grandmother kneeling in the kitchen as she plated decorative stacks of rice cake and fresh fruit, as she scooped out little spoonfuls into small bowls as offerings.

I watched as the older men guided the boys in their placements on the offering table, adjusting plates of fish to perfect east-facing orientation, aligning everything at flawless perpendicular angles. I watched the men in suits, already overheated in the Jeju morning, rise to give their forefathers the respect of a full suit jacket. Bearing the heat of an extra layer, the men would bow completely in unison. First, falling on the right leg, then rising with the left

I watched the children be reluctantly pulled away from their Yu-Gi-Oh cards and smartphones, their youthful sense of duty tinged with chagrin. The youngest brother was called in to help lead the Charye for his first time and fumbled with an endearing clumsiness. The older men chided him about forgetting certain foods for the offering. “Add the fish! Don’t forget the rice. More rice! Careful with the soju,” they’d tease, correcting the angle of the spoon when he set it down. And when he went to burn the prayer on the silk screen behind the offering, he fumbled again and nearly set the offering table on fire.

I too had fumbled as I worried about the form of my bow, the duration, all these little things that didn’t matter, but of course did. Yet, like all family traditions, the intent was there. And I bowed, in full prostration, before the ancestors who would bring up a family so kind as to welcome me into their home on Chuseok, who made me feel as if I belonged there: on the floor before the offering at the right of my host sister.

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