Tuesday, September 28, 2010


For those not 'in the know', the title of this post is 'Chuseok'. Chuseok is one of Korea's biggest holidays. This along with 설날 (Seollal) are the two biggest holidays in Korea, and apparently they are bigger than Christmas!! We'll see.

Chuseok is a holiday that is celebrated for the most part within each family. It is a traditional holiday that runs along similar veins to the American Thanksgiving Day holiday. It is in essence a harvest festival in which thanks is given to the ancestors for a good harvest. During the 3 day celebration, the ancestor's gravesites (or tombs) are cleaned and tidied up, and offerings are made to the ancestors to show respect and to show gratitude for the good harvest.

It comes as a bit of surprise then that this years harvest was apparently among the worst in many years (decades even), this is obvious when one realises that current fruit and vegetable prices sitting at between 3-5 times the price of previous years. Nevertheless this didn't spoil the event in the least!

Chuseok is a relatively private holiday, celebrated with family and many foreigners are left to their own accord to do something over these 3 days. This year the 3 days of Chuseok fell on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Many foreigners took off  Monday or Friday (or both) and made themselves a cosy mid-term holiday. Claudia and myself didn't get these extra days off but we were lucky enough to be invited to by one of my co-teachers, Sunny, grandmother's home for the entire 3 day period.

So off it was, to a ridiculously busy bus terminal on the Tuesday morning, to head off to Jin Bu, which is where Sunny's grandmother lives. This having been Chuseok, the buses were packed to bursting point, which resulted in us having a not-so-comfy 1 1/2 hour standing bus ride! Not recommended!

Climbing off the bus, we were both pretty keen on some seat time, although this was all going to change over the next 3 days!

Sunny's parents came to pick us up from the bus terminal, and after packing our luggage in the boot of the car, Sunny made us recite to her parents the Korean phrases she had taught us ('Nice to meet you' and 'Thank you for inviting us' were among the more popular ones).

After a brief 5 minute stint in the car, we took our luggage out of the boot and headed into the house, to be greeted by about a dozen strange Korean faces. We didn't know these people from a bar of soap, but again, out of courtesy, Sunny made us recite our lines (this time we threw in a 'My name is...' and 'I'm from South Africa). We were immediately well received by the whole family which made us feel a lot more at ease with this overwhelming situation. After throwing our bags down in the sleeping room, which thanks to the amazing Korean hospitality, was given to us, we immediately took part in one of the traditional activities...making Seongpyeon.

Seongpyeon is one the Korean foods traditionally made around Chuseok. A thick dough is made from glutinous rice powder and various other ingredients. This dough is then coloured using some other additives (we had purple, made with grapes, yellow, made with pumpkin, and green, made with various herbs). The idea is to take pieces of this dough, fill it with one of several ingredients, among them chestnut and some or other bean, and then the roll up this piece of dough and make it look somewhat pretty. There is a saying in Korea that if you can make pretty Seongpyeon, you will have beautiful children. Let's just say neither Claudia nor myself will have anything resembling human babies if that's anything to go by...and God forbid we should have kids together...oh the horror!

These were the Seongpyeon done by the professionals who I am sure will have amazingly beautiful children!

The finished pieces of Seongpyeon are then thrown into a large steamer and steamed until perfect. Traditionally they are steamed on a bed of pine needles, although we did not do this with ours. Nevertheless, Seongpyeon is a scrumptious, traditional Korean food!

After a few hours of sitting on the floor doing this, and observing the other ladies cooking like madmen in the kitchen, it was time to eat. A mealtime during Chuseok is really something to behold. The amount and variety of food that is available is just staggering. It was a meal of ambrosial proportions! After the eating is done, the women are back in the kitchen cleaning up and washing pots and pans and dishes and chopsticks and spoons and all sorts of other odds n ends! The kitchen was nothing but a non stop hustle! And before we get angry emails from girls out there saying "you're being sexist...,etc.", this is the reality of things. There are still very real gender roles in Korean society, and they definitely come to the fore during holidays like Chuseok, when it is the women's job to make food and clean dishes, while the men relax and watch TV or chat about whatever tickles their fancy.

With full bellies and smiles on our faces we thanked all the cooks and moved on to our next activity...playing games with the kids. 2 of Sunny's cousins were at this family gathering, Joshua who is 13 and David who is 11, and they took it upon themselves to introduce us to a traditional Korean board game called Yut. It's a game played with wooden sticks on a board game, which involves a lot more strategy than it makes one think. I am not going to go into the finer details of the game right here, but rather will direct those interested to this very detailed Wikipedia entry.

As the saying goes, time flies when you're having fun, and so before we knew it, the games were over and packed away and we found ourselves around the dinner table once again feasting on a magnificent array of delectable foods!

"Maagie vol, oogies toe", is the best way for me to describe what transpired next. It is an Afrikaans saying that literally means: "Stomach full, eyes close". And that is what we did, we had a great nights sleep.

The next morning we woke to the sound of many people talking, and of course the, by now standard, sound of clinking pots and pans and frying delicacies. Mmmmm. What a great way to wake up! After a quick shower it was time for breakfast, which needless to say was once again amazing. I must point out to fellow westerners that breakfast in Korea is not what we are used to. There is no cereal, yogurt and boiled eggs. No, breakfast here consists of the same soups, broths, fried noodles, rice and other food items that are eaten for dinner or lunch, a little strange but delicious either way.

Sunny decided it would be a good idea to take us to the near by Oh De San mountain park, and I tell you, it was not a good idea, it was a spectacular idea! What an amazing place. Korea as a whole is a achingly beautiful country, and this area is definitely one of the highlights. We walked around for a couple of hours, also visiting the nearby temple. Visiting a Buddhist temple planted smack-bang in the middle of a beautiful mountain range on a crispy Korean morning is something that everyone should aspire to doing at least once in their lives! Amazing!

Head back home...time for lunch. At this point I shouldn't have to tell you what an amazing feats this was! Simply awesome, much like all the other meals.

We spent the last couple of hours milling about town, with 2 of Sunny's high school friends, and enjoying an amazing cup of coffee at one of the local coffee shops (the best cup of Coffee so far in Korea!!). After enjoying a great dinner and playing some more games, it was off to bed, only to wake up again to the hustle and bustle of a busy Korean house at Chuseok!

The morning was spent saying goodbyes to the various branches of the family, and wishing them all goodbye and a safe journey back home. Claudia and myself also said goodbye in our own freshly learnt, broken Korean phrases. With all the goodbyes done, it was our turn to head off to the bus terminal, which we did in a huge hurry, realising that our bus was about to leave. We got there as the bus was leaving! All's well that ends well they say, and I can speak for myself and for Claudia here, Chuseok was an amazing experience, and we are most grateful to Sunny and her awesome family for letting us experience it with them!

To add one more thing, Chuseok is a time of giving...many gifts are given, and children are more often than not given money by their relatives...big smiles all round. There is nothing new about gifts being given, but one thing that is different is the types of gifts that are given. Walk into any store before Chuseok, and you will see shelf after shelf covered in gift packs. These gift packs range from tea assortments to packs of canned food.

 This is the tea pack that Claudia received from her school.

There is nothing strange about receiving tea as a gift, but SPAM! Wow, that's weird. No, apparently it isn't. Spam(or canned meat) is a very highly regarded gift in Korea. No joke! It seems that the origin of Spam runs back a few decades to the post war years in Korea, when fresh meat was almost impossible to come by and refrigeration was also basically non-existent. Spam was then considered a huge luxury item, and this seems to still hold true today.

There are large varieties of gift packs that can be given, some containing an assortment of toothbrushes and toothpastes, other with Soaps and bath items (I'm not talking bath salts and body scrub, I'm talking straight forward, old school bar soap!). The variety is endless, and people buy these items left right and centre as gifts for family and relatives.

This was is the gift given to me by my director, and as you can see it contains bottles of cooking oil, cans of tuna, and yes, the great canned meat, Spam!

Chuseok was a fantastic experience, and I am glad that I am currently living in the 'Land Of The Morning Calm', and that I was able to be part of these fantastic celebrations!

Post by Oliver


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