Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Belated Seollal post

Sunday, Feb 14th was this year's Lunar New Year, or Seollal as it is called in Korean. I was invited to tag along with Unni to her family home in Waegwan, a suburb of Daegu, about 4 hours' drive southeast of Seoul. Waegwan is famous for having a large US military base and being the location of a fierce battle during the Korean War over possession of a bridge.

The first night, I met Unni's parents and one of her nieces. Unni's mother showed me pictures of Unni and her siblings as children in the family photo albums. Until a few years ago, the family lived in a nice traditional house with a spacious garden, but they had to move when plans for a major highway went through their property. Now they live in a decent-sized, but very temporary-feeling, apartment. Unni said they'd like to move but haven't found a decent place yet.

Not much happened on New Years' Eve. There was no countdown, very little drinking, and nobody wanted to stay up late. Unni explained that the real event would be the next day when all the family arrived.

From early the next morning, Unni's mother, assisted by two aunts, went to work artfully arranging various traditional foods on platters and placing them on a long table in front of a beautiful calligraphy screen, which seemed to represent their ancestors in some way. The food had already been prepared, probably at the aunts' houses. It took a long time to arrange everything on the table.


Little by little the family began arriving. Unni has two younger sisters and a younger brother, all of whom have children of their own. Also, both of her parents come from large families, so some cousins dropped by. When the food display was finished, all the men of the family (with the exception of Unni's 1-year-old nephew) gathered before the scroll and did a formal New Year's bow. Then, as they knelt before the table, Unni's father, aided by a nephew, performed some rite which I couldn't properly see, but I think he was pouring rice wine into a cup and lighting a stick of incense.

Once that bit was finished, everyone stood up and began clearing all the food off the table and rearranging it onto regular dishes. The screen was folded, wrapped up and put away, presumably until next year. Then the food was brought out again for the living family members to chow down on.

Unni's nieces each had their own hanbok to wear; one girl wore hers almost all day, but the others changed out of them almost immediately. Unni's little nephew even had his own baby hanbok which made him look like a little lord. His doljanchi party is next week, so it was probably prepared for that purpose.



Koreans say that Seollal is like their Christmas, the biggest family gathering and major holiday of the year. The kids all seemed excited, though I couldn't clearly understand why. They didn't get presents, but each family member was expected to make a traditional New Years' bow to the grandparents, then kneel before them while they asked various questions such as "How are you doing in school?" and "Isn't it time you got married?" The questioning was fairly brief, though I can imagine how in some families it might go on for a while. Afterward, the young children received gifts of small amounts of cash in envelopes. This seemed to be the source of their excitement; thinking back on the mounds of presents we used to anticipate each Christmas, it was a little hard to understand.


Unni's mother is an interesting person. She is the only other artist in the family aside from Unni; she does painting and is also an accomplished calligrapher. Their home bore tell-tale signs of her priorities: bookshelves were cluttered with art supplies and notebooks, blotches of ink and paint decorated the floor, and scrolls and spare rags piled up in unruly stacks in the corners. The living room was dominated by a large workspace, on which rested an open book of very difficult Chinese character phrases which she studied for her calligraphy.

During a calm moment in the day, Unni, her mother and I went on a short hike in the hills directly behind the apartment building. It was nice to get out in a quiet forest for a change; the trails near Seoul are usually crowded with hikers any day of the week. As we walked, Unni's mom eagerly shared with me thoughts on the holiday. "Koreans are more quiet and contemplative than Westerners," she said. "Westerners are more boisterous, and are drawn to man-made things and technological wonders. Koreans are more drawn to the natural world. That is why from ancient times we have prefered the lunar calendar, which is closer to nature than the Western calendar." I could think of several objections to her points. Quiet Koreans? And how is the lunar cycle more natural than the solar one? But I didn't want to argue and probably couldn't express my thoughts properly in Korean anyway. I had to admit that Unni's mother seemed more quiet and contemplative than most Koreans that I had met, if a bit intimidating at first.

On the day after Seollal, Unni took me to her favorite public bath and sauna, which was just a few blocks from her home. It was similar to the sauna at our apartment complex in Seoul. A major difference between Korean and Japanese facilities of this type is the Koreans have something called a jimjilbang, which is like a sauna except cooler, and you go in wearing pajamas supplied by the facility, so men and women can use the same room. Jimjilbangs are not unbearably hot, so you can sit for quite a while or even go to sleep in them and be okay. Unni, however, is serious about sweating and believes jimjilbangs are for lightweights, so we stuck to the saunas in the all-women's bath area.

Another thing I noticed about the Korean baths is that, in the shower area, women had left their soaps and shampoos and things by the shower heads in order to "claim" that space as theirs. It was a busy day and most of the shower heads had already been claimed in this way; Unni deposited me at one apparently unused spot, and sat down nearby at a spot that was empty except for a small sponge that might have been left behind.

Almost immediately, a formidable-looking middle-aged woman came stomping over still dripping from her bath, and harangued Unni for stealing her spot. Unni harangued her right back, and she must have done a good job, because the woman went away. I told Unni that in Japan people typically didn't save shower spots like that, as far as I knew. Unni agreed that that way would be best, but she was sure to carefully position our own bathing supplies around the shower heads so as to leave no doubt that those spots were ours.

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