14 September 2008


Today was 츠석, the Korean holiday of thanksgiving. Rather than a pseudomemorial to Pilgrims, it is just a general designated day for thanking one's ancestors. I went with my friend 형식 to meet his family. I assumed it would just be a small affair; dinner and a ceremony, something like that.

I was very, very wrong.

He picked me up in the morning with his wife and daughter. His wife is a very pleasant woman, and his daughter is this absurdly adorable little thing with a perpetual grin. And I'm feeling pretty good: this is something new, and it looks like it will be fun. But then twenty minutes after we start out, 형식 tells me that it is good I am okay with sleeping on a mat rather than a bed, since there are no beds at his parents' house in Suncheon. My immediate thoughts were:
  • Wait, we're staying the night? He didn't tell me that... I have only the clothes on my back!
  • Wait, we're going to a different city? Where the hell are we going?
  • If I jump out at this speed, how badly will I be hurt?
I was somewhat less than delighted with this turn of events. It was only because of rather fortuitous caution that I had thought to bring a few extra allergy pills, a fully-charged phone, and a larger amount of money than I ordinarily carry. I told my friend as politely as possible that I wished he had told me about this, since even Americans like to change their underwear. He apologized, of course, and we worked out that we would stop at a small store when we got there to get a few items.

A couple of hours later, we arrive at Suncheon. It's to the north of Yeosu, and it is heavily rural farming country. There are fields of rice and tea, mountains, and ramshackle Korean traditional homes with a few small trading centers with stores and things. 형식's family home is a smallish place by most standards; four rooms and a kitchen, but they have a nice cement courtyard of about the same size, and two long sheds filled with the odds and ends of the mechanically-inclined modern country farmer. When we got there, all of the men were gathered around a small tire, busy patching it (or commenting on how lousy the other guys were doing at patching it). 형식's father and two brothers, as well as two young teenage boys, squatted there and hammered away and shouted at each other as they swabbed rubber cement or pumped air with a battered bicycle pump.

형식 introduced me. I caught a few words, now that I know enough to begin to pick up things. They had already heard about me, I could tell, since they just greeted me and returned to their business, swatting at the tire tread and complaining about the heat (which was considerable). 형식's father was the very soul of a Korean grandfather: tanned almost black, wrinkled, balding, and extremely kind. Minus the balding bit, that also described 형식's mother, for that matter. She was reportedly very nervous, since she had never met a foreigner before and didn't know if I would like the food.

I would come to find that food would be the theme of the weekend. I saw relatively little of the brother's wives and 형식's mother since they spent about 75% of their time in the kitchen. Almost ceaselessly from dawn to the early hours of the morning, they were preparing ingredients (husking, shucking, shelling), or cooking them (rolling, frying, boiling), or serving them out on folding tables. I was not permitted to help. I was not even permitted to clean up. In this highly traditional home, I was the uncomfortable benefactor of male status. It was, of course, impossible to even think of saying anything: that would be seen as an egregious insult against their ancient way of life. But I couldn't help but notice all weekend that the women of the family never got to stop working.

The results of this endless work was a huge amount of food. I mean, we're talking just goddamn ridiculous. Breakfast was rice and a big plate of noodles and a dozen side dishes. Then there was a midmorning snack of fruit and rice cakes. Then there was an early lunch of soup and side dishes and rice, as well as big plates of fish. Then there was an early afternoon snack of clams and conch, which we cooked on an outdoor range and pulled from their shells in the courtyard. Then there was a late afternoon snack of fruit and some kind of potato-ish nut. Then there was an early dinner of all the lunch dishes plus some new ones, and more noodles. Then there was dessert by way of an enormous plate of four different kinds of fruit, peeled and sliced. Then there was a late dinner of two different kinds of fried chicken and beer. And finally, a final plate of fruit and 서즈.

And I had to eat a large amount of each meal. I am not joking or even exaggerating. If anything, this fails to describe the immensity of food. I'm not even counting the three different kinds of teas, juice, and coffee that were also served throughout the day. And given how kind 형식's mother was to me... what could I do? She looked at me with her eyes - almost wholly black, as their natural narrowness has drawn to almost a line with the years of sun - and she would be hopeful and plaintive... I had to keep eating.

During the days, we did numerous things. The kids watched some television, generally tuned to the gaming channel which would play some of the league games of Starcraft with excited announcers jabbering commentary. I hung with the adults, doing many things:
  • We played late-night billiards. Not "pocket pool," but billiards - two white balls and two red balls. It's a much simpler but much more difficult game, but it was a heck of a lot of fun to learn and I picked it up quickly.
  • They taught me 장기, a traditional Korean game that resembles chess vaguely. Everyone gathered around the board while one of the kids and I tried to play a halting game, interrupted at every turn with someone else reaching in and making our move for us or shouting about strategy, laughing as someone suggested something crazy. I still have little idea how to play, since I never could get them to stop horsing around long enough to show me how the pieces move.
  • I taught them blackjack. They had never played it, and so when I saw the deck of cards I decided to teach them. It was easy to do, since I know all the numbers and simple words now. We used 50-won pieces as our money, since we had handfuls of them (they are essentially worthless, like pennies). At first, just the kids played. But after the adults watched for a bit and had learned the rules, they sat down and wanted to play too. I guess it helps to have children to watch make mistakes, since that way you can sit down and pretend it's easy.
  • We opened the gate, strung two clotheslines between the posts, and played volleyball. I hate volleyball at this point, but couldn't say no in this situation. I embarrassed myself at it. Again. But it was a little fun, at least.
So there were numerous things to do, much more than I would have imagined. I am probably too urban, since I was surprised they could find things to do out there.

This morning, we did the actual 츠석 ritual. They carefully wrapped up a plate of their best fruit and a bottle of expensive rice wine, and carried them to a nearby mountain. We climbed it a bit to find their family shrine, which was in fact the grave site of 형식's paternal grandparents. I could tell that the family was all quiet and respectful with some sort of awe - religious or familial, I'm not sure. Essentially, it was a small cleared area, carefully maintained on a little plateau cut into the hillside. In the middle was a tall and round mound, about four feet in height, with a couple of stone tablets in front of it. They carefully plucked up by hand the blades of grass that were growing stray or too tall, and wiped down the tablets with a wet cloth. Then they all did the traditional bow. This is the full-fledged get-on-your-knees-and-put-your-face-to-the-dirt bow. I stood a bit aside and bowed my head, which I reasoned was a way to show respect without being presumptuous. Then they poured out careful glasses of wine, and took turns sprinkling them on the mound gently. They cut up the fruit into small pieces, and scattered them on the mound, whispering things.

And then, almost without interlude, the ceremony was done and we were just on a hill in front of a grass mound rather than at a sacred family site. They drank from the wine and ate the center parts of the fruit, chatting and taking pictures. 형식 pointed out a few things to me in the countryside, such as their family's fields and where he had once lost his cow when he was a child.

The ride back to their home was, in a word, terrifying.

First, let me explain something about Korean driving. They ignore the signs when convenient, drive way too fast down one-lane streets, and very frequently squeeze past each other between buildings with literally an inch to spare. I am not joking at all: one inch. And they do this going 40 mph. Riding with a Korean "safe" driver is like being in the car with the most dangerous driver you can think of in America; riding with someone Koreans consider a "crazycrazy" driver is tantamount to just admitting you will never sleep soundly again.

So when I say the ride was terrifying, this should give you some sense of perspective.

All the kids got in the back of a small truck, and grabbed onto ropes there so they wouldn't bounce out. I, along with 형식 and the brother who wasn't driving, was herded up into the bed of the truck. We stood behind the cab and held onto the cab as he drove. We were going for a tour of the area before going home.

I knew this was dangerous, but I figured that, hey, he's going to go slow. These roads are narrow, broken, and in some places just big slabs of rock haphazardly laid down. Riding inside the car is a jarring experience, and they're not morons.

As it turns out, they are morons. Well, that may be a little harsh, but that's what I thought as I gripped the slipper metal bar of the truck cab until my knuckles turned white, as we roared off.

I don't know how fast 70 km/hr actually is. But a converter tells me that it's a little over 40 mph. At the time, all I knew was that we were going way too fast. And what's more, 형식's brother who was driving thought this was hilarious, and so he would stop suddenly, start suddenly, make fake turns and then swerve the other way, and speed up to about 100 km/hr on the straightaways. It was absolutely insane and incredibly stupid of them. I couldn't help but remember 형식 telling me with chagrin that the biggest cause of death here was car accidents, and how it was a big shame to them. Gee, I thought as I almost slid out of the back of a moving truck, I wonder why that could be?

My palms have bruises across them from my grip on that truck.

In the evening and after a final meal, we said our goodbyes and headed home. 형식 still had to go to the home of his in-laws (and maybe - and this is just a wild guess - have a meal), so they dropped me at the bus station and I caught a ride home.

All in all, an out-of-control, total-immersion, crazy and fun and delicious experience.  And I hate that truck.


  1. It's cool you got to experience that. All I got was a lot of food =D