This past weekend was Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving. While I continue to be un-thankful for cockroaches and showers that get the entire bathroom wet, I am extremely thankful for three days off school, and for people who have unsecured internet connections. I am also thankful for the flight reimbursement that was paid directly into my extremely empty bank account on the first morning of Chuseok.
According to the Official Site of Korea Tourism, (http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/index.kto) Chuseok is the most important holiday in Korea. Everybody goes back to their home town (or in the case of married couples, the husband’s home town). This is no mean feat in a small nation of almost 50 million people! Having experienced Chuseok traffic before, I elected to stay in Ulsan.
Just as a little example, my former co-teacher was from somewhere in the south of Korea. Every Chuseok, she would dutifully make the journey from Seoul to her home town to visit her parents. Normally this journey would take 4-5 hours but at Chuseok, it would take anywhere from 16-20 hours. Apparently there are people who make heaps of money every Chuseok by selling snacks on the side of the highway. Clever people. Personally I wondered what all the people who were stuck in traffic did if they had to go to the bathroom.
Anyway, hoping to avoid travel woes, I stayed in Ulsan with some friends.
The first day we went to Busan, famous for its fish markets, sandy beaches and as a battleground during the Korean War. Sadly, it was raining hard enough to make me consider building an ark so we mostly wandered around inside – a huge mall that is in the Guiness Book of World Records for some reason, and the really neat aquarium. We also sat in a pub, drank Strongbow ale and watched England play in the Rugby World Cup. I almost forgot I was in Korea for a bit!
The highlight, or possibly the lowlight of the day was the “Mexican” food we ate for lunch. The restaurant was called the Fuzzy Navel which probably should have been our first warning sign. The burrito options were chicken, beef or potato. Fabulous, thought I. How rare that there is an actual vegetarian option!! My veggie burrito arrived and I opened it to discover crispy little tater tots and cabbage. Lots of it.
I also tried a blueberry rice muffin, pictured above. It looks a bit like play dough and tasted like a purple marshmallow.
Monday was the actual day of Chuseok. It always falls on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. In plain English, this means that the date changes every year. A lot of Koreans follow the lunar calendar; it’s very bizarre. It also leads to amazinly complicated discussions when I ask when people’s birthdays are. “Well this year it will be on….”
This year, the 15th day of the 8th lunar month fell on September 12th. This is quite early. The other 3 Chuseoks I spent in Korea were in the last week of September or the first week in October. It must awfully difficult to plan things around a major holiday that changes every year!
Monday morning, the news was full of Chuseok. The purpose of Chuseok is to give thanks to your ancestors for an abundant harvest. I gather the theory is that they are up there putting in a good word for you and your harvest so you need to be appropriately thankful. I’m not sure exactly what happens as the ceremony is just for family but I’ve been told that there is a lot of bowing. People also go to the family graves to clean off the weeds and grass that have grown since last Chuseok. The news was full of Chuseok stories. The news helicopters flew around Seoul filming people who were bowing to their ancestors, cleaning graves, or having a meal next to the now spotless graves.
A Korean lady invited some of us to her house to celebrate Chuseok with her. She is an artist and lives in a gorgeous house in an artists’ village up in the mountains.
She went out of her way to make us feel welcome, and fed us until we were all perilously close to exploding. She fed us traditional Korean things like quail eggs, rice cake, dark thick-skinned grapes, and lotus leaf tea.
She also fed us “American style” pasta topped with peppers, garlic, capers and randomly, Kraft single slices.
After a stupendous dinner, we went to tour her studio. She does installation art mostly but also does a lot of pottery sculptures. One of her favourite things to make is shoes and she’s working on clothes right now.
She also took us on a tour of her garden where she was growing the spicy peppers Koreans love to put in everything!!
What a neat way to spend Chuseok! 🙂