My First Chuseok

I was unsure of what to expect when Ms. Cho, a music teacher at my school, picked me up at 9 in the morning to bring me to her brother's place. She wanted to help me celebrate my first Chuseok. Chuseok, the Korean version of Thanksgiving, happens during the full moon in autumn. It’s a time to remember one’s dead ancestors and get together with family. And since it happens over a five-day long weekend, there’s lots of celebration.

We drove to her brother’s apartment and relaxed with some other women in the family until the boys showed up. I was disappointed to see that no one except for one small child was wearing the beautiful traditional hanbok for the holidays.

child wearing Hanbok for Chuseok

child wearing Hanbok for Chuseok

They all placed the food on the table according to what seemed to be a diagram cut from the newspaper, perhaps something titled ‘How to Set a Table for a Chuseok Ceremony’. Like any Korean meal, there were a lot of dishes and the display covered the whole table.

Then they placed framed pictures of their dead parents on the buffet table against the wall in between two large cream-coloured candles. Once the food was placed properly, the children of the pictured ancestors, as well as their spouses and children, took turns bowing to the pictures. First, a tea-like drink was poured into a silver bowl on the floor in front of three incense candles. It took three tips to pour the tea into the bowl. Then the child or family would bow down, with their head to the floor, twice. This was followed by the Catholic cross fingered across their chests. 

Next, stapled booklets were handed out to each of the adults, covered with Hangeul I couldn’t decipher. One of the elder sons seemed to lead the reading, but the other joined in with choral readings and some singing every once in a while. Again, it was a mix of Korean tradition and Catholic additions.

Finally: the candles were blown out, tables were spilt apart, food was divided into multiple bowls, chopsticks and spoons were handed out, and people were told to sit down to eat. I skipped the kimchi and fish and dined on beef, rice, soup broth, and veggies instead.

After, we drank some tea and coffee and chatted. Some families left, but I stayed and chatted with a grandson who has lived in America for half his life but is back in Korea now to do his mandatory two year military service. We had some Korean TV show playing in the background, and I kept glancing at it and imagining I could understand what was going on.

By 2 in the afternoon, the time had come to visit the ancestors’ graves. We packed up the food and headed for the cars. I was sleepy and I knew a nap was inevitable. Very soon after we hit the streets and the bumper-to-bumper Chuseok traffic, I drifted off. I slept for a good chunk of the two hour drive to the mountains. When we got there, I was lucky to find that Ms. Cho had some extra sneakers because apparently it’s a steep walk up the mountain to the gravesite. After switching my footwear, I hiked up to their mother’s grave. (Apparently their father’s was located somewhere else.) It was a beautiful location—almost hidden amongst the trees. I wouldn’t have known it was a graveyard if I hadn’t been led into it.

They poured some soju on the grave as a sort of libation. We spread blankets out and set up the grill. Leftovers from our late breakfast or lunch were set out for this mid-afternoon snack/early supper. We enjoyed the meal and chatted for a while—or rather, they chatted while I got lost in my own thoughts. Part of the conversation that was interpreted for me went something like this:

“In the Cho family, the women’s face is very ugly.”

“Not beautiful.”

“All the women look the same.”

“Yes, all very ugly.”

“But their personality is very good.”

At first I was unsure of whether to laugh or not, but I took my cues from them and let out a giggle. They were being silly and so I let myself enjoy it.

Being with family over the holidays—no matter whose family or what holiday it is—is always a pleasure.