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Monday, February 18, 2013

Happy (Lunar) New Year--Celebrating the Korean Way

By:  Brittany S

In the Western world, the tradition of gathering with friends and complete strangers alike and bringing in the new year.  In some public setting in slacks with button-ups and sequined cocktail dresses, thousands of people gather with flutes overflowing with the bubbly toasting to "out with the old, in with the new" hopes.  Other circles gather in churches or family homes to count down the new year.  Wherever they may be, the new year watch party takes place December 31-January 1, every year, without fail.

But this is the way in the West.

In the Eastern world, some countries celebrate a different (or an additional) new year, a day determined by a lunar calendar (the "standard" calendar to date is a solar calendar).  This means that the day isn't marked by an annual date perse (every Jan 1 for instance), but it rotates.  This year, Lunar New Year was Sunday, February 10.  And I celebrated it with a Korean family.

Think of this as Korea's national "birthday cake"  (Courtesy: Koreanbapsang.com)

"Seollal" (설날) is the first day of the Lunar calendar.  It is traditionally a 3-day holiday (a day both before and after the new year are a part of the holiday).  It is a holiday in which distant relatives return home to celebrate the new year with their extended families.  Although it is not as popular as it once was, many Koreans still dress in the traditional "hanbok" (한복)to the ancestral ceremonies (or at least more formal attire).  They eat "tteokguk" (떡국) or rice cake soup for good luck and to acknowledge becoming another year older.  (Eat this and age a year!)  Other dishes served during Seollal include galbijjim (braised short ribs), japchae (glass noodles with sautéed vegetables), Korean pancakes, hangwa (traditional sweets and cookies), and about a dozen other side dishes of various kinds of fresh vegetables, meat and fish.

Me stuffed in my (tiny) boss' hanbok one day before work.
Koreans perform "sebae" (세배) or a formal bowing ceremony in front of the family's elders.  They sit at the feet of the elders (starting with the eldest), perform one deep bow, say "saehae bok mani badeuseyo"  (새해 복 많이 받으세요--loosely translates to "have a blessed new year"), then sit and wait for words of wisdom and encouragement from the elders.  Elders also give "sebae don" (세배 돈) or pocket money for good luck in the new year as a reward for this gesture.

So what does this all have to do with me?  Well, this year, Eun Hwa (은화, my Korean name) celebrated as well!  One of my friends invited me to celebrate the holiday with her family.  I felt humbled and honored that she would let me share in that tradition, particularly because my Korean language skills are so limited.  I traveled to Cholwon, a small town near the DMZ (the border between the Koreas) and stayed with her in her parents' home.  I was a bit jittery (as I always am when with a Korean family) that I would mess up a custom, offend or at the very least annoy someone with my ignorance.  I was vaguely familiar with the holiday but had never celebrated it.  Plus this was my first time meeting her family and I would be meeting about 20+ people at once!  But my friend was by my side (most of the time) and helped me feel at ease.

A HUGE mountain that spanned practically everywhere we went in Cholwon!
It is a custom to bring a gift (usually food) to the host, but due to the length of travel and my confused jetlagged state (I had only been back in the country for a couple of days), I didn't purchase one of the many Seollal gift sets and grabbed a bag of fruit from my home instead.  Her mother graciously accepted and prepared dinner for us all (her husband, daughter, son, and me).  Afterwards I played "Rummikub" with my friend and her father.  He is such a relaxed person that he made me feel right at home.  We retired to our room for the night and prepared for bed.  This was my first sleepover in a Korean home! :-)

Probably the most unexpected gift set in my American mind.  This thing costs around $35USD!                            (Courtesy: Koreatimes.co.kr)

I thought the bed was very interesting.  It was elevated to the same height to which I am accustomed, but it was not a mattress; more like a boxspring.  It was an electrically heated box in a sense.  It was so warm!  It incorporates the Korean tradition of sleeping on the floor with the Western tradition of sleeping in a bed.  I'm glad I pulled the covers back before I hopped in bed!  I would have really hurt my knees! :-)  The bathroom was unfamiliar to me as well.  The washing machine was next to the toilet, there was plenty of storage space within the bathroom, and there was no sink, but a low faucet about shin height.  Wondering where the shower is?  There is a showerhead attached to the faucet and the entire floor is shower-friendly tile.

If I were to describe a boxspring for a bed and a faucet for a shower to my family, I'm sure some of them (and perhaps some of you) would think I was in a poor house.  That isn't the case at all.  This family has everything they need and then some.  They have more cows than I could count (almost all of which stood up when I walked out to visit them; how respectful hehe) and a few other animals, they have a hearty family business, have traveled and lived abroad, and the list goes on.  Being with them made me question what measures I (or we as Westerners or Americans) use to gauge poverty or being "well-off."  My apartment has a stand-alone shower but is the size of a dorm room.  This family owns a house and land in a country where apartments are the norm.  It also made me consider what luxuries are and how other things can easily serve as alternatives to them.  Their bathroom was almost the size of my apartment!  Who needs a separate section for a shower when you have all of that!?
All cows stood for me except the brown one.  "How now brown cow!?"

The next morning (at 8am) we went next door to one of her aunt's houses to gather with her father's side of the family.  We had a small church service followed by "sebae" and breakfast.  I was asked to participate in sebae as well.  They even gave me sebae don.  I felt as much love from her entire family as if I was her sister.  And all of this without a sentence of English!  From there we went to her family's church (where I sang along with everyone using my new Korean/English bible/hymnal duo) followed by dinner with her mom's side of the family.  Let me just go on record as saying her grandma is ADORABLE!  She was so tiny and I could see the joy in her face as her legacy sat around her.  We performed sebae again, ate dinner, and sat around joking and enjoying each other's company.  Apparently I now need to start dating someone in the family so I can marry one of them. :-)

In the morning, we returned to her grandma's to have breakfast and say goodbye to everyone.  My friend and I headed back to our respective cities and as I was leaving, the family wished me safe travels, gave me a loving hug, and hoped I would return soon.
Sometimes Sebae Don is given in a small pouch.  Ours wasn't, but traditions evolve.  (As seen on:  roryandjamie.com)

I think I found another Korean family!

"Saehae bok mani badeuseyo!"

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