Chuseok, or Chusok (a sort of “Korean Thanksgiving,” but also a sort of Sukkot, a celebration of the Harvest) begins! Sometimes I wonder what it’s like on the streets of Seoul and in the countrysides of Korea this time of year on the eve of such a great holiday. People flying home to their families, people getting their ingredients together for song pyun (rice cakes) and fried fish and all the dishes in their festive meals.

Here–you would hardly notice the holiday exists, because of course this is America and not Korea, and the clock ticks to a different set of holidays (4th of July, Thanksgiving, etc., etc.)

I remember as a child, rising early during Chuseok, to pay homage to my ancestors–we would rise, rubbing the sleep (and not so thoroughly) from our eyes, and don our Korean dress, which would make a sound that only stiff silk makes, as we walked to the living room to a table laden with symbolic foods for our ancestors. My father would fill the cups with Korean wine. And then we would bow. The soup would be taken away (the ancestors had eaten their first course). And then bow. The main courses would be taken away. And then bow, each time the rustling of our silk clothing filling the dawn light.

Oh, and that food would not go to waste! We would eat it all, a healthy breakfast that morning before changing into our shorts and tshirts, and heading off to school in Suburban America.

My father made it a point to say our family home was “an island” in this country. Everyday we would come home and shed our “American” mainstream clothing and behaviors and cross some make believe bridge into a house where we would become “Korean” again. Eventually, this rift made me crazy–made me feel like two different kind of people…and I had to meld them together. But for awhile, it was very manageable and incredibly poignant.



Filed under Life, Memories

12 responses to “Chuseok

  1. Gorgeous post. So vivid. I love it. And I totally get that “island” image. We had that too.

  2. You are so much pithier than long-winded me. That’s a beautiful post. I’m fascinated that you are both Jewish and Korean. I didn’t know there were Korean Jews. I’m also amazed at how similar that Korean Harvest festival sounds to the word Sukkot.

  3. Susan: thank you–I know, islands! The island, ultimately, almost destroyed me. I had to build a bridge.

    the individual voice: thank you–yes, I’m Jewish and Korean, though a bad Jew by many definitions, and maybe not even a Jew by other definitions. Regardless, I try to live a Jewish life, key word being “try” πŸ™‚

    And you are the first to point out the similarities between Sukkot and Chusok! Now I am just mulling that over. And they fall the on the same days this year (or is it every year? Chusok lasts for 3 days, and it begins on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar year…Sukkot is on the 15th day of Tishri…is Tishri the 8th month of the lunar year?). My mother in law liked to think that Koreans were “the lost tribe,” though my orthodox rabbi would often laugh (scoff) at that hypothesis.

  4. Orthodox! Wow! And yes, we now have some evidence here for your mother-in-law’s argument.

  5. Oh, by no means can I be considered Orthodox Jewish–though I did study with an Orthodox rabbi for a few years.

  6. I wish we did this! We never did and now I feel a little sad b/c I don’t know enough to do this for my new family. ARGH. I just told my husband about thsi and he said, what is it? Argh. Here I am building an island out of the air bridging it desperately…

    re: Chusok vs. Sukkot — I thought about this before too esp. because the sounds of the words are so similar. I might post more comments later. Thinking here…

  7. JDo

    happy chusok πŸ™‚ generations of my family don’t follow the tradition of setting the table for our ancestors (this is our anti-tradition…or alternatively, we’re bad koreans) but we do pay our respects. nonetheless, i enjoyed your post.

    it’s been many years since, but i’ve been in seoul during chusok. it sorta sucks b/c the city and the highways leading out to the country turn into one big traffic jam. then, seoul becomes eerily empty. my family, being from north korea, obviously doesn’t make annual the pilgrimage.

  8. What JDo said. Though I think it’s a little less eerily empty these days. This year a lot of my students said they’d be staying in Seoul, and they didn’t “have to” go home this year. Lime and I mostly stayed home, had homemade pizza, and didn’t really go out except for a horrifying trip to the mart, which you already read about, Jade, and a few walks…

  9. Eve

    We have two Korean born children, and I was fortunate enough to share Chuseok with my son’s foster family one year outside Seoul. It was one of the best experiences of my life.

    Wish I could go back sometime soon.

    Happy Chuseok!

  10. nequila

    Wow, you must have been unlike 99% of kyopos in celebrating Chuseok (and presumably Seol nal as well?). Growing up I never knew this holiday even existed.

  11. arirang: my parents don’t do Chuseok anymore–not after we grew up a bit and entered junior high. I’m not sure why that is. I don’t think Chuseok, a Korean island, makes! πŸ™‚ I thought about making song pyun from scratch this year, but then I was like, “Where the hell can I go find some pine needles?” There’s a redwood tree outside our house and I tried googling whether I could use redwood pine needles for song pyun but I couldn’t find a definitive answer–and then I just totally gave up. πŸ˜›

    JDo: Happy Chusok to you too! both sides of your family are from North Korea? Yep, my mom can’t visit her ancestral home in Pyongyang…but my dad, i imagine, visited his in ChoongChungDo. I think I got a phone call from my aunt this year (she couldn’t figure out my cellphone voicemail and I thought I could hear her mumbling, “What is this? I don’t know how to leave a message,” and then hanging up).

    Gord: Happy Chusok! Homemade pizza sounds super yummy–do you make it often in Korea? Are you able to find the ingredients?

    Eve: Happy Chusok to you too! I can already tel you are a wonderful mother, but I will say it just to be repetitive–you are a wonderful mother to have invested energy in your children’s culture and traveling to their home country. I am SURE they will appreciate it when they grow up.

    nequila: Yah–it was something we never talked about, we didn’t even KNOW it was to celebrate Chuseok! Just “something weird” we did every Fall. So fascinating what our parents tell us, and what parents FORGET to tell us. But I’ve put the pieces together and figured it out. Happy Chuseok. πŸ™‚

  12. Lamberakis

    Fish is the only meat I eat now. I love fried fish!

    My friend taught me how to say “I love turkey,” “I love money,” and “I love penis” in Korean. We were dirty-minded teenagers who thought that was the funniest thing in the world.

    Happy Chuseok.

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