Many of you know that this weekend in Korea is the celebration of the lunar new year or Seollal. Every year around this time, I think about the Seollal I got to spend with my birth family shortly after our reunion in 2011. It was a confusing, enlightening, painful, joyful, enriching experience. After my return to the States, I wrote about it on my personal blog at the time. I thought it appropriate to share again here for new readers or those interested in learning what Seollal is all about. I hope you enjoy. -w
I was talking to my brother Hyunbae on the phone this week and we were reminiscing about where we were and what we were doing this time (last year) in 2011. Some of you are aware that this coming week is 설날, or the start of the new year, in Korea. For Seollal 2011, my whole family was together under one roof in Seoul. I was nervous about not knowing the traditional customs and my family was thrilled to be initiating me on my 1st Korean new year.
On the equivalent of our New Year’s Eve, Hyunbae and I went out on the town to meet friends, grab dinner, and hang out. I didn’t know that it was supposed to be an “early” night — in America, you stay out late on NYE, but apparently my family had been expecting us home to rest before the next day’s events. I can distinctly remember getting text messages from Omma that day, asking where we were and what time we were coming home. Finally, Appa called and told me that we’d better get home soon. A major frustration during my year in Korea: the expectations are never explained beforehand! By the time Hyunbae and I got in, Omma was fit to be tied — the sort of mom anger that manifests itself in the silent treatment. Yikes!
On the day of the big event, I woke up to find my grandmother standing over me, smiling. It scared the bejesus out of me and I jumped out of bed. I went outside to find our whole living room had been rearranged and that a large table had been set up with enough food for the whole country. I found out later that omma had been cooking since about 4am. There was a big picture on the table of my grandfather, who passed away several years ago. Everyone was dressed up, my brother in a full suit, and my grandmother in traditional Korean hanbok. One at a time, extended family members starting showing up. Finally, Appa started gathering everyone together in front of the table of food. Everyone was standing in an organized line and I was so confused.
In typical Korean-style, I didn’t get much of a warning about the 제사, or ancestor ritual. Once everyone was in their place, Appa and my older brother began the ceremony by paying their respects to my grandfather with deep bows and food offerings. We were all then led to follow their example, and went through a long series of ritual bows — the kind that require you to almost lay flat on the floor. You can probably imagine the look on my face by this point. Hyunbae grabbed me and said, “Just follow what I do!” As you would have done in that awkward situation, I obeyed. By the time we were done with our marathon bowing, I felt like I had just completed a hardcore Jillian Michaels workout.
After the ceremony, we feasted. There is no other word to describe it. There was so much delicious food, I thought I was going to just burst right out of my skinny jeans. Then just as I was about to slink away for a nap, we cleared the table and I could tell everyone was preparing for another bowing ceremony. I wanted to die.
In this series of bows, the cousins/kids took turns paying their respects to the elders (grandmother, aunts, uncles, parents). The tradition is for the kids to give a deep bow before the elders and say, “새해 복 많이 받으세요” or “May you receive many blessings in the new year.” To my surprise, after the bowing, everyone started handing out money. This was one of my favorite parts of Seollal! In typical Korean custom, the elders reward the childrens’ blessing/ritual by giving out money. I wish we could adopt that custom here in the States!
All afternoon we went in a cycle of eating >> talking >> bowing >> getting money. Family members kept coming and going and I thought the day would never end. By the time the last aunt left, I was completely exhausted and noticed that my knees were throbbing. When I pulled up my pant legs, I realized that I had gone down on my bow a little too hard onto the hardwood floors – too focused on not messing up – and my knees were literally black and blue. I can’t even describe to you how bruised my legs were and how painful this experience was! It took me weeks to recover.
Just when I thought I was finally going to get a chance to rest, my parents started yelling about putting on shoes and getting ready to go. I looked at my brother with searching eyes and he told me, “Time to visit mother’s side of the family!” *cue exhausted moan/forehead slap*
Here is a picture of me with Appa, Hyunbae, and halmoni (grandmother).
새해 복 많이 받으세요!
May you receive many blessings in the new year!
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