Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Continuity of Family

I considered calling this post "The Bovine Massacre" for reasons soon to be revealed, but somehow the family focus seemed more positive. As I tend towards vegetarianism when travelling other countries (including Korea), my family always jumps on the chance when I hint at liking some form of meat. Thus, when I casually mentioned how I hadn't had any beef stock soup (Seollangtang) this time around, Changmonim's cousin quickly offered to take me to a local dive.

We were now into the weekend traffic, as evidenced by the below photo that shows a combined effort of five people (including the driver) to park a car.

This was definitely one of those restaurants I never would have stumbled on by myself. We had to go all the way through a local market into an almost deserted hallway with a couple stray vendors.
Translating the restaurant sign as we approached, I realized it said "Cow Head Soup," but the front advertising display made this even more clear.

It appeared to be a fairly simple process. Simply take a bunch of cow heads, boil them in an enormous cauldron of water, throw in some onions, rice, and sesame seeds, pull out the skulls, and voila! Cow head soup!

This wasn't quite the same soup I had had in mind when I mentioned beef stock soup to the women earlier on, but boy was it delicious!

The other main meal of the day was "jesa" which I'm not quite sure how to translate. It's a ceremony to celebrate one's ancestors, but it can take several forms. This particular one was to honor Grandpa's parents who had passed away back in World War II. After being introduced to Grandpa's younger brother and his wife, I was ushered into the ceremony room where the oldest uncle's wife had spent the day preparing food for the ancestors. This is not a trivial detail. In Korea, the oldest son is responsible for all familial duties, but that really means that the oldest son's wife is responsible for all the traditional ceremonies. It's such a major responsibility that Korean females will seriously weigh this factor in when deciding whether to marry a firstborn son (although the culture is slowly changing).

I'm never quite sure how to take the traditional ceremonies here. In some ways, the concept of honoring an ancestor feels very sacred and the detailed structure reinforces this. At the same time, people are coming in and out laughing, talking, answering cell phones, etc. even during the heart of the ceremony (which itself only lasts five minutes). I asked Grandma and Grandpa about this afterwards, and they told me that the ceremonies these days are much different in terms of respect level than when they were younger (at that time, everyone had to be completely silent and there was a much stronger air of reverence). It makes me wonder if it will die out within a generation or two.

After the ancestors had their fill, we enjoyed the leftovers (which was basically everything except for a couple cups of the rice whiskey). Then, as Imo was feeling sick, JakunWeisumo took out a needle prick device and poked her under her fingernails and toenails (I had never seen the toenail pricking before; Joo said that is only for more serious cases of stomach sickness). This process apparently allows the "bad blood" to flow out of the body.

The favorite part for me was lounging around afterwards and discussing the olden days. I had never really pried Grandma and Grandpa before for details of their childhood, but somehow the atmosphere seemed right. I found out that the Japanese invaders had prohibited Grandma from ever attending school (even elementary school) and so she had to teach herself to read. I asked Grandpa if he ever hangs out with anyone other than Grandma these days and he said, "Everyone I knew is dead now." For some reason this invoked uproarious laughter among all those who were listening. Joo explained to me that Grandpa is an anomaly for his generation in that he has lived an abnormally long time. He told me stories about when he first saw the American soldiers arrive in the Korean War and how he had no idea what was happening and so he ran for his life since they looked so intimidating.

It was one of those moments when I feel so privileged to have married into a culture where family is essentially an extension of self (as opposed to Western society where family members maintain their unique individuality even when they are very close with each other). That's still a strange concept for me to grasp, but I'm enjoying every minute of trying to figure it out :)

No comments:

Post a Comment