Action-packed, as I think the New Year’s week is for most here — the official holiday was Monday and Tuesday; we could feel the city drain a bit but we were in the thick of it (on the roads) when the hoards returned (a 15 mile drive took nearly 3 hours! — all part of the experience; oddly though, many were men alone in their cars — when I asked, one woman suggested it might be men having gone off after their household chesa (the rituals for the ancestors on New Year’s morning) to “play”; I wonder if it wasn’t men alone doing New Year’s greetings and grave visits (other folks have agreed with me). In a phone (skype — we are paying $5/mo. for limitless phone calls to the U.S.!) conversation with my dear friend Karen Winter-Nelson last week, Isaac chimed in to say that he was very excited about the saebae (i.e., the New Year’s bowing (with some monetary rewards)). This prompted 14 year old Ezra to wonder whether he could still bow at his age which in turn prompted me to ask So Jin (who we had spent the holiday with) and Jiwon (the 15 year old daughter of my old friend — and I pride myself because I formally introduced him to his wife); true to their ages, So Jin wrote to Karen to say that one bows to their parents as long as they are alive, while Jiwon wrote with a kid’s eye, namely offering until what age one could bow (for cash) (until marriage generally, but in the case of her family she continues to see her grandparents give her parents money!). Meanwhile So Jin chirped in to say that she had been thinking that perhaps college students should no longer to be given cash this way, but her siblings persisted so she had no choice but to give as well. (After I began writing this someone told me that in his family his parents and married siblings give money to one another during the bow (the kids go first); yet others have mentioned the considerable financial burden of these payments). Just this morning the 3 kids were video skyping with the girls’ friend Ellen and they were performing the bow for her — and they were also showing her video clips (through skype) of the 1st birthday party we went to (will get to that). And, while I’m on the topic of the new technologies, Karen had already (by the time of her son Ezra’s query) found the Korean New Year’s bow on Youtube. How is one to keep up?
I have always liked the Japanese expression “hana yori dango” meaning “more than the flowers, the rice-cakes” — meaning when people’s attentions go to the more material/crass than the spirit (in this case during the formal “flower watching” in the Japanese spring). All that to say that it is odd (or not so, really) that I have described the money given on the holiday before the holiday. With no further ado. Isaac and I got into the mood the Sunday before with a visit to the “Korean house village” at Namsan (i.e., the have transported a “traditional” rural yangban (former elites) complex where they were doing many “traditional” games, demonstrations, and performances. Isaac pushed a metal ring, swung at a top with a string to keep it going, took in a wonderful drumming performance, pounded sticky rice to make ddôk, etc., together with the “Evanston boys.” (There had been a possibility that Isaac would visit the boys’ home to which he said: “Mom how would you feel if it’s your second week and you’re having your first play date!” — he seems very content to go ‘when he is ready’). It was bitter cold and he was a great sport and I relented (like all kids, he was pretty persistent) and bought him two wooden swords (one for Simone of course who for some reason loves sword fighting) (what was I thinking? The apartment is big but not that big and the swords were quickly broken and confiscated by Andy!) The crowd (not so large actually) was mostly Chinese! I chatted with a family from Taiwan on vacation — I would have loved to know if the others were resident or not. (Andy and the girls explored a water wheel in the neighborhood and a mountain behind (Ansan) which we all hiked almost all the way up yesterday (Andy read yesterday–he is busily finding hiking maps for Seoul) that it was the scene of an enormous Korean War battle with many deaths) (we are baffled why there is no residential development there — but appreciative and also of the remarkable network of what appear to be newly groomed paths, lookouts, and as with the mountain above us, remarkable vita parcours (that’s what we call it after the European exercise stations that dot their hills as well). (Since I wrote this I have found out that it was citizen activism that saved the hill from apartment building and that downstairs Yon-mi’s Dad was very involved. We’ll have to ask him about it).
As for the day of New Year’s, the kids slept in (we watched Titanic the night before such that all New Year’s Day all Isaac wanted to talk about was other ship-sinking but most of all to learn from Andy about all the technologies that today — continued risks aside — make Titanic-like events less likely; I think asking for more was Isaac’s was of calming himself) and by the time I called So Jin it was pretty clear that we would miss the family chesa. But, they waited. Andy drove: muttering a bit on the way about the different way that Koreans tend to direct people to their abodes. The chesa table with the dark wood dishes (many of them) was set up in front of a folding screen and piled high with goodies — the fruit of So Jin and her mother-in-law’s effort. When I kept telling Isaac that these were offerings for the ancestors he wanted to know when they would eat it all. Later he learned when So Jin told us that now we would have to wait a bit for the ancestors to eat before we could. So Jin’s husband, Byoung-young — with his parents looking on and chiming in and with the help of a ritual handbook propped on the shelf — guided everyone through the bowing and greeting of both living and dead. And, yes, the kids were elated to receive New Year’s money from So Jin and her in-laws. But when we went to spend it and he realized the value-of-money and that with ALL that it would only turn into a single stuffed animal, he was saddened (we were at the underground shoppng haven, Co-ex). Ah. It was lovely to observe the way in which So Jin and Byoung-young and his parents took the occasion to share with Hyemin their hopes for her into the New Year: that she study well, be well-mannered etc. At least as a parent, I think it’s great to have/make those occasions, to single out what we care about. Hyemin, Isaac’s age, bowed to us too! All told our kids to have a great time in Korea! Although serious, there was nothing stiff or off-putting to the occasion and we all felt very comfortable there. And then the screen and offerings — after the ancestors’ time to eat — were folded up, and tucked away (there is a special trunk) and we ate. When Byoung-young lit a piece of paper (I should know what it was but I don’t) to send the ancestors away (he stepped out of the apartment into the hall), Isaac explained that the flame must be guiding them back, which So Jin agreed captured to spirit perfectly. (The girls will complain — if they ever read this far — that I am (yet again) lavishing far too much praise on Isaac!)
What a feast. And then a bit later we headed to So Jin’s temple, the Hanmaum Seon (Korean zen) Center (http://www.hanmaum.org/eng/) founded by a woman, now in her 80s, Master Daehaeng. I know that the Center/temple has been an important place of refuge, learning, prayer, and comradeship for So Jin (once I enjoyed a whole dinner hearing all about So Jin’s intensive many-month-long training there — and So Jin’s peace-of-mind is enough to make me want to follow in her footsteps). I think it was 5 stories, and floors 3, 4, and 5 are enormous, completely open, prayer chambers (with 5’s televised on 3 and 4), and with 5’s decorated with more traditional painted wooden ceiling etc. And all floors with a Buddha. The building is quite new, although on the location of the old temple. We arrived, knowingly, after the temple’s chesa ceremony and thus saw the temple emptied. It was beautiful and peaceful and it was lovely to meet several of the people who had joined So Jin for her intensive training (I could feel their bond) and to see the lovely garden which includes a beautiful relief of the Master feeding ducks in Germany (an adherent there — there are many — took a photo that inspired the relief), beautiful clay mosaics (several again with my favorite decorative motif of 10-good luck symbols), and many other delights for the eye, including the beautiful way in which 7 golden spheres on the top of the stupa in the garden replicate the 7 golden spheres on the top of the temple. I took a picture of them together and was pleased, only to find out in the gift shop that such a shot is nearly canonical! So Jin described — I forget if it was heresay — how the Master herself oversaw the erecting of the spheres on the garden stupa, wanting to be sure of their safety. I loved that detail and the image of the 80s-something Master lovingly overseeing the finishing touches of this garden. Another detail: So Jin told me that she has taken to greeting people on the New Years with “In the New Year, make lots of god fortune” rather than the standard, “In the New Year, receive lots of goof fortune.” Smile. And a lovely bit of luck. Some parishioners (not sure what to say) had already begun making the lanterns for the spring lantern festival: we headed to the temple basement to find a young man and woman each practicing their ink and brush drawings (of standard motifs) and the architecture made of some of them made of think wooden thread-like rods. When asked they explained that the painting/coloring — volunteer work that runs 100s of hours — is a religious practice itself. It looked appealing to me; I like repetition of that sort!
Another highlight was Shim-il’s first birthday celebration with nearly 50 people! Shim-il is the grandson of the woman who I called So-yeon’s Mother in my book on women and melodrama inSouth Korea. I’ve known the family since 1983 and Shim-il’s Dad since he was quite a young boy. Shim-il’s Mom is Chinese and the family lives in Shanghai. Most gathered were the relatives on So-yeon’s Mother’s side as well as a number of Cathedral (they are Catholic) folks (priests and other folks) because Shim-il’s grandfather is the president of his congregation. I was on cloud nine to see so many people I know and like in one place and to meet all of the 20-something cousins; we were seated (it was a long table at a lovely restaurant) next to them and they were a cosmopolitan group with many studies abroad among them. Andy was immediately comfortable (wine helped) and as one of the cousins had his fiancée with and was about to marry there was lots of fodder for fun banter. Nearing the end of the party the soon-to-groom handed out his wedding invitations to all at the party (us included); Andy joked that we would be numbers 645-650 (the size of their “mid-size” wedding had already been a topic of conversation; if not for the fact that we will be in Japan then, we would go!). So-yeon’s Father who I say quite a bit about in that book, faults aside, is a man who knows how to have a good time: he is at home in a crowd and an entertainer par excellence. Even now, I keep asking myself, what made that party so much fun when it could have been stiff and perfunctory. At the other end of the table was the “altar-like” table set for the baby — piled high with fruits and sweets (standard for such an event). On that table was the tray full of items that the baby — as tradition has it — picks up to foretell his course (will he make money? Be a scholar? Life a long life? etc.) It was fun to watch the little hands (with hovering adults guiding) make their way to an enormous wad of string to predict long life and to a book and ruler to foretell the scholar. Several nights later over pizza dinner with Jiwon (the daughter of the marriage I “arranged” — they had hosted us for a wonderful evening that included a pool, sauna, hot tub, wine, and plum wine; I was barely standing by 10ish) we had ourselves is stitches imagining that there might have been entirely other things on such a table: chains to predict a criminal, a microphone a rock star etc. etc. The conversation was devishly irreverent which the kids somehow “got.” I nearly cried laughing. (I had visions of it on Youtube). (later Q-ho told me that these days with money being everything some people attach coins to everything on the tray (books and brushes included) so that the baby can’t avoid symbols or economic well-being! I insisted that this must be a joke but he said no). Back to the party. Shim-il (meaning one heart) seemed a bit overwhelmed by all the Korean (he had only been here 2 days) but smiled when we spoke English to him — he won our hearts. So-yeon’s Mother called me to ask what I thought of her Chinese daughter-in-law. I liked her: tall, frank, and remarkably at ease in this most-difficult of situations (she speaks no Korean). But, not surprisingly, she had lots to say; this historically fragile relationship of mother and daughter-in-law is made ever more so by this sort of international marriage, of which there are more and more in South Korea (some 15% of marriages; largely, however, to resident foreign workers or the marriages of migrant brides to farmers who find themselves stranded in the countryside where no South Korean girl wants to settle). Seo-yeon’s Mother asked me to meet her son to remind him of the importance of remembering Korea (and teaching Shim-il Korean) but he leaves today and it didn’t happen.
As if all this wasn’t enough eventful, Carmen had a very special visit two evenings ago: of the deaf couple we met selling hôtddôk (sweet rice panckes) on a truck. We had been corresponding by texting (Frances, I did learn how!) and it took many days for us to find a free night! (Don’t ask Andy what he thinks of our schedule, but things are calming down). They arrived with their 15 year old (13 American age) daughter who is not deaf and can translate her parents’ signing with ease. The father doesn’t speak and can’t read lips; the very active and expressive mother speaks (I can make it out but it takes work) and read lips. Both parents are educated (the Mom seems to have a college degree); they do the truck on the weekends and during the week it seems that the Mom is busy with various work with deaf people and the father polishes cars. This New Years, what with things being tight, they opted on selling the pancakes rather than visiting. (Soo-Jung told me last night that the ski area she went to on the New Years was nearly empty. So the economic crisis is running its course here too.) For nearly 3 hours Carmen and Sôn-a’s Mom compared ASL (American Sign Language) and Korean sign language (which they told me is a colonial period product and similar to Japanese sign language — I will have to look into this). The Mother took copious notes and we all had a ball. The signs were all slightly different, but many of them somewhat intelligible — it was so much fun comparing. We all got the biggest laugh when we figured out that the ASL sign for being born (one hand sliding under the other) is the Korean sign for putting in a video. Carmen was at her best: enthusiastically explaining even the many ASL jokes that she knows (they were VERY hard to translate). Many year ago I translated Japanese at a deaf school in Hartford (I was traveling with the then young-adult peace activist children of atomic bomb victims) and I remember so clearly how very interested the kids were in me and my speaking Japanese (this was after weeks of being on the road where I was having invisibility blues — I felt like not much more than a mouth-piece much of the time). That evening too it was as if we were all sort of enjoying the joy of translation in and of itself. They brought a mocca cake that was divine and I felt terrible when I had to say that I needed to feed my family dinner. Likely Carmen and I will head there one afternoon next week.
A lovely lunch with my long-term RA’s parents, sister, and brother-in-law at a hotel buffet with — to the kids’ delight — a chocolate fondue waterfall of sorts. Everything else became appetizers to the altar. Jiyeon’s Dad is an avid snow boarded, skier, and hiker and had spent the New Years afternoon and evening till midnight skiing. His wife had joined his trips when younger but when he began to snowboard she found herself left behind and prefers to stay home for quieter fare. In the few days since, Jiyeon has been offered an academic job in the U.S. and I am so happy for all of them. Crazily, I asked Jiyeon if I could offer her a spring RAship in Seoul and she obliged (so she will come soon). I am terribly spoiled, what with Q-ho “the great” (he has done everything from detective work — finding old friends — to bringing rice for our family from his hometown; I hope I can return the favors into the future) who has eased all of our transitions here (he is one of Haejoang’s students) and Jiyeon soon to come.
A dinner here of 5 (!!) anthropologists of Korea (So Jin, Erica Vogel (studying Peruvians here), Seo Young Park studying the Tongdaemun market (women, time, production), and that was how I was able to see Laura Nelson again and it was so much fun). I know of 6 people doing anthropological (or kindred) research here so we will meet monthly. Also met and old friend of an old friend who is studying gaming in Korea and has a fabulous blog on things-internet: http://florencechee.blogspot.com (for the academically inclined I recommend her most recent co-authored publication that explains South Korea’s uniqueness for resisting (Japanese) console-based (e.g., the Wii) gaming and instead doing internet-based games, often at the ubiquitous so-called PC-bang (i.e., rooms)). And when Florence came over, so did John Cho (one of my students who is still field-working here) and Hae Yeon Choo who I met at the Monterey SSRC (first) Korea Workshop last summer and is studying Filipina laborers, sex workers, and brides (she is happy to have me visit her in the field which would be very special for me).
A lovely dinner hosted by Yang Han-sun, a former student who just landed a tenure-track job and was kind enough to feel compelled to take a group of Illinois-anthro folks (me, So Jin, Soo Jung, John, Josie, and Hye-young) out to a delicious dinner. Those of us with kids shared the woes (and joys) of child-rearing. As is so often the case, folks in Seoul don’t see one another (what with busy lives, and in a crowded city) so my visit prompted their reunion (again!). But I missed the Hapkido exhibition at which all three kids punched pieces of balsa wood (to split it) and apparently succeeded. By the time I left the studio, Isaac was being coddled by a big group of older boys and the girls were ensconced in a group of slightly older teens who each of whom was communicating with hand motions to say that all of the others in the group were nuts. I could see friendships in the making. The kids are continuing their Korean with Yon-mi downstairs and by now the girls can read han’gul and say interesting things like “parking lot” and “subway.” And Kay (Kayoun) who taught them in preschool at home and is just back from finishing her Ed PhD has found the kids another lovely teacher who can spend some hours here. This is music to my ears because these are long weeks with little child care!
FINALLY, and I mean it, So Jin (through her artist brother and sister-in-law) have found me an oil painting teacher. Yes, it makes no sense to come to Seoul and learn oil painting, but I have the time. So. I can’t wait to begin.
Whoops, two more little things. One. I love apartment living. Andy and I spend lots of time at the same table (in the early morning). The kitchen fans out into the dining-living open space so I never feel isolated there. And every room is easily accessible such that even though the apartment is spacious it all seems easier. And day by day there are touches of Haejoang’s that move me: the photo from our New Year’s card shortly after Isaac’s birth is hanging on the sliding door to the kitchen; the laminated card from this year with the photo that Tom Bassett took of the kids at a New Hampshire beach when they were in boogie board heaven is propped on the shelf at the door; and a welcome sign to Carmen and Simone with a purple ribbon hang’s on the door to the room that Simone and Isaac decided to share. My Mom has always been a big believer in welcome signs and as I was much less efficient than my other siblings with practical contributions to household labor, they were my province and I loved them (placenames for the table too). In our family it is Carmen who tends to take this on. Two, I finally figured out one of the reasons I love Seoul: over half of the country lives in Seoul and vicinity and everyone else isn’t very far away anyways. So, everyone I know here is nearby. That is a luxury that we so don’t have in the U.S. Actually, as it turns out, I will see many more American friends here in Seoul than I would at home (a number of old friend will pass through, even those without obvious Korea connections!)
Mom, you still here?