“Younger generation people don’t know how to bow properly! You’ve lost touch with traditions!” said one of my uncles in disgust as my cousins and I took turns paying respects to our ancestors. My parents nodded in agreement, muttering to themselves what a mistake it was to have immigrated to the States, that their children were nearly Americans, that we were losing our language, and so on.
They thought I wasn’t listening, but I heard every word. So well, in fact, that their echoes were still ringing in my head when I returned to Korea as an adult to rediscover my language and culture. I thought it was because I was a gyopo (first-generation immigrant) that I had no sense of tradition. Or maybe it was because my family and I moved to the States when I wasn’t quite 7 yet, that I had lost my sense of history.
When I got to Korea, I discovered that I was wrong. It wasn’t just me. The entire country seemed to have lost some of the old-time ideals I remembered as a child. The loss of tradition was most apparent to me during Chusok, Korea’s harvest moon festival. (The celebration happens on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. This year, it falls on Tuesday.)
In the old days, you could tell Chusok was coming. Not just because of the shorter days and cooler nights, or the crisp leaves falling on the ground. Newspapers and TV began advertising travel tickets. People were packing their hanbok (Korean traditional clothes) and making plans to go to their hometowns to participate in the ritual. Everyone was getting ready for a big holiday.
The harvest festivities can be traced back to the time of the Three Kingdoms, specifically in the Shilla kingdom. The capital of Shilla was divided into six areas. The women from the different divisions were grouped into two competing teams, each led by a princess, for a monthlong weaving contest. This competition ended on the eighth full moon of the year when the king announced the winner. The losing team had to provide the food, drinks and entertainment for the citywide celebration that ensued.
With time, harvest festivities became more of a community and family activity, involving visits to the family tombs and an offering of food prepared from new crops to thank our ancestors for the bountiful harvest.
I was staying with relatives in Seoul and looking forward to seeing the colors of autumn while traveling through the Korean countryside to our distant hometown. I was already salivating in anticipation of the Chusok feast-eating the fruits of the harvest and making song pyon (half-moon-shaped rice cakes filled with sesame seeds, beans or chestnuts).
Traffic was bumper to bumper the whole way. It seemed the entire population of Seoul, something like 10 million people, was all on the road at once. The painted lines on the highway were largely ignored as three-lane roads accommodated four or even five lanes of cars full of angry vacationers, crawling through the traffic with their horns blaring.
Somehow, I fell asleep. When I awoke, we had already reached our destination--a house of the relative who lived closest to the family tombs. I was disappointed to have missed the scenery on the way there, but even more disappointed to find that half of the relatives were too busy to even make it out for the Chusok festivities.
Still, the house was brimming with activity. There were some people (related to me somehow; I could never keep track) watching a Korean soap opera in one room, others smoking outside and a few of the older women cooking. After greeting everyone, I joined the women in the kitchen. They were just getting ready to set the chesa table (part of the ritual for paying respect to our ancestors). One of my aunts ran out to grab a newspaper from the other room.
Just as I was wondering what she was going to use the paper for, she opened it to an article about Chusok. There was a diagram of the chesa table, showing you where to put the piles of persimmon and dates, where the bowl of rice should go and even which direction the fish should face. I had to laugh. I didn’t even know there was fish on the chesa table. No one could remember where everything should go. They were all studying the diagram to make sure the table was set properly.
Then, my great aunt pulled out the dough to make the song pyon . This was the part I looked forward to the most growing up. Every year, my mom and I would drive to a park to find pine needles to steam the song pyon . So imagine my disappointment when they started laying the song pyon in the steamer without any pine.
I got up to put on my shoes. The door closed behind me, but not before I heard someone say, “Hae-Jin’s more traditional than we are. She’s insisting we have pine needles.” And I wished my uncle was around to hear that.
The last time I made song pyon was at my parents’ house. My 5-year-old nephew came into the kitchen to see what we were doing. I told him to pull up a chair so I could teach him how to make rice cakes.
“Christopher, do you know what they say about how making song pyon ?” I asked him. “They say that if you make beautiful song pyon , you will have beautiful daughters. If your song pyon are ugly, your daughters will be ugly, too.
“It’s a good thing your mom only had sons,” I said louder to make sure my sister heard as she rocked her baby back and forth in the other room. “You should see her song pyon !”
My nephew didn’t notice as he sat quietly for awhile, concentrating hard on the song pyon he was making. Finally, he looked up from the misshapen dough in his hands.
” Emo (auntie),” he said to me earnestly. “I don’t think I’m going to have any kids.”