Chuseok and My Birthday

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(Jamwon Park, along the Han River, Seoul, Chuseok day)

  I’ve had a somewhat busy past week. Busy in the best possible sense. It’s been a week of celebration for me as Chuseok happened to fall on the same day as my birthday. Chuseok, originally named Hangawi, is a celebration of the changing of seasons and the end of summer. Every year it falls on the 15th day of the 8th month according to the lunar calendar, meaning always on a full moon. The full moon is symbolic of a completed cycle and as a time to appreciate the harvest of good crops. To the American mind, it’s akin to Thanksgiving. Yet, the spiritual undertones are deeper (if I dare say), as the harvested crops are considered blessings from ancestors past.

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   (Two older women walking in Jamwon Park, Chuseok day)

   During this time Seoul resembles a ghost town, an amazing sight, as families leave for their hometowns to celbrate or retreat indoors. The reason for visiting their hometowns is both to spend time with existing relatives and honor their ancestors spirits. Most families will still visit the gravesites of their deceased relatives and honor them by trimming cleaning the area surrounding the tomb. At home, traditional foods are offered on an altar to the spirits of the ancestors. I say spirits because to the Korean mind, death does not entail an end. The spirits of deceased ancestors are thought to live on and protect their descedants. As a way of honoring and offering thanks to their ancestors, traditional foods are arranged in a specific pattern, according to the four directions. The most characteristic food of Chuseok is Songpyeon, a rice ball in the shape of a moon or a half moon and filled with stuffing that often includes honey, sesame seeds, walnut, jujube and many others. The Songpyeon is then (traditionally) finished by steaming it over pine needles. Along with Songpyeon are offered, and eaten, varieties of meat dishes, ddeok (rice cakes) makgeolli (rice “wine”) and soju (korean sweet potato vodka).

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     (Pizza in Sinchon, Seoul)

    This year, this special day aligned with my birthday on September 8th. It’s my first year to celebrate my birthday in Korea and the first time I’ve celebrated outside of the states. I jokingly was telling my mom it’s a rather auspicious occasion. While I don’t have literal crops to harvest, this past year has been full of enriching experiences. I consider these experiences as nourishment for my soul as I enter a new year of life in Korea. As families honor their ancestors, I have my own ancestors to thank, as well as those living now. There’s a lot of people that came before me who have helped me along way in life and a lot living now as well. Instead of seeing Chuseok as just another birthday, it felt like a particularly rich day. There’s little I can really say about this holiday because I’ve yet to celebrate with a Korean family. I’ve been dating my Korean girlfriend for over a year now, but it still wasn’t considered the best time to meet the whole family, yet her and I were able to celebrate my birthday a day early.

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(Typically a very, very busy street during this time. Very quiet on Chuseok, in Apgujeong)

    We met on the day before Chuseok, a Sunday, in Sinchon. We began our day with pizza at a new flatbread pizza restaurant. We had a Korean/American style pizza, half pepporoni, half potato and a variety of toppings. In Seoul, most of the available (and best) food is still Korean, but it’s becoming an increasingly international city as pizza places, microbrew bars, etc. continue to frequently appear. It was refreshing to eat some decent pizza. From there, You Jeong had a plan in her mind for my day, so we went back to my apartment where I found a few bags of gifts awaiting me with a nice card. You Jeong knows I love coffee and Korean cafe coffee is quite expensive. So, she bought me a coffee maker. I’ve since been drinking a little over my average amount of coffee per day but loving the machine. She also gave me an old coffee/tea mug she made in school as a 10-year-old. This one was hard for me to accept, but meant a lot. Her parents also gave me a gift related to Chuseok – a large box of Ddeok (Korean rice cakes), in many assorted flavors, including red bean, honey, green tea and fruity flavors. As Ddeok is relatively heavy and starchy food I’m slowing working my way through the box.

Afterwards we saw a movie at the theater then visited the Bukchon/Samcheong-dong areas of Seoul. Bukchon is known for it’s collection of existing Korean traditional style Hanok homes. It’s also been re-developing as modern Hanok (traditional korean homes) are built. Samcheong-dong is a famous fashion/art area that flows into Bukchon. These areas are two of my favorites in Seoul, offering some quiet on weekdays and a taste of a more traditional Korea as well as some sophistication. Plus, the coffee you can find here can be of very high quality. We walked for a while, just taking in the sites, until reaching a small traditional korean home/cafe. You Jeong had a bought me a cake at Paris Baguette (a chain bakery here in Korea) and we were able to celebrate in a small loft of the cafe. Sitting in the wooden interior, cross legged, we set up the cake. I’d always somewhat dreamed about a birthday in Asia so this was a wonderful way to celebrate. The interior of the cafe was calm and warm. I sipped a hot americano as you jeong prepared the candles. Once done, she sang happy birthday to me in Korean and I blew the candles out. We talked for a while then finally made our way to our homes.

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    (Itaewon area, on Chuseok during a walk)

    It was a really special day, followed by a few more filled with wishes from family and friends back home as well as new family/friends here in Korea and surrounding Asia. Having been here a year, I felt upon my birthday, a sense of connection to both places. The greetings that came to me around my birthday were equally balanced between Asia and the states. I was proud of this, as my goal for myself in Korea has been to open up to the country and culture and become half a step in Vermont and America, half a step in Korea – to become a multicultural man, neither clinging to America nor rejecting it in favor for the east, remaining both flexible and open. This was my celebration this year on this sacred day in Korean history. Celebrating the development of my progressing cross-cultural relationship, the progress I’ve made in my Korean studies and the adjustment process I’m on in understanding myself as a expat and international citizen.

3 thoughts on “Chuseok and My Birthday

  1. Debra L Sachs

    What a beautifully written heart spoken piece. Wonderfully breathtaking Evan. Thank you for writing and sharing this special Korean holiday and your birthday.

  2. Daene Luna

    Hi! Just wanted to ask – are a lot of places (restaurants and shops) still open in Seoul during Chuseok? Two of my four days there at the end of this month fall right at the beginning of Chuseok (September 26-27) and I’m worried there won’t be anything for me to shop / eat / visit (have done all the traditional stuff already as I’ve been to Seoul a couple of times previously). Thanks! 🙂

    Also – advanced happy birthday! 🙂

    1. Evan Blittersdorf

      Hey Daene,
      Thank you! As to shops/restaurants being open, you’ll find there’s a lot more shops/restaurants closed than at other times of the year but no worries, Seoul’s a big city and the city far from shuts dow. It still won’t be hard to find places to eat and shop. If you go to Myeongdong to shop on Chuseok, most if not all of the stores should be open, and even if you’re in a less touristy, busy area, you’ll be able to find some open restaurants around you.

      On the plus side of going during Chuseok, you’ll be able to see a relatively quiet, peaceful Seoul…a unique experience in itself 🙂 Feel free to ask if you have any more questions and have a great trip! There’ll be plenty to do

      Evan

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