Posts Tagged ‘Chuseok’

Someone on another forum linked this post from Ask a Korean. We’ve just finished celebrating Chuseok, when many people still perform an ancestral memorial ritual which includes preparing, organizing, and offering traditional food and dishes in a prescribed way to the ancestors, and this picture is making the rounds and causing some controversy.


Is it acceptable for the food prescribed by tradition, which is painstakingly prepared by women, sometimes for days, to be altered due to time constraints, life constraints, contemporary culture, or just based on the ancestors’ preferences?

I’ve said before that my husband’s family does not participate in this ritual, and all things considered, they are not a strict Confucian family. I’m also not Korean. So maybe I should keep my mouth shut on this issue. But I do have two degrees in religious studies – one relating to death rituals, have travelled to countless religious sites throughout Asia, joined a ritual-loving church after realizing I heart ritual, and have had personal experiences with death rituals in my family…so based on those credentials, I’m going to offer my opinion.

One phrase I truly hate is ‘preserving tradition.’ We preserve dead things. When a cucumber is plucked from the ground, we stuff it in a jar, add all sorts of preserving agents, seal up the jar and put it on the shelf until we are ready to consume it. My grandmother was a great canner when she lived on the farm, and I have very vivid memories of shelves and shelves of canned fruits and vegetables in her vast cellar. They are yummy memories, but they are memories of dead fruits and vegetables which need additives because they have been plucked from their life sources.

Tradition lives. Tradition changes. It does. There is no point going into all the various examples now, but those things you truly love – your religious ceremonies, your family Christmas traditions, your traditional forms of clothes, your ‘family values’…all of those things that we label as ‘traditional’ have changed over time. They incorporate many traditions, and times, and personalities, and realities. When we have to preserve tradition, tradition is in trouble. When we live our traditions, and those traditions meet our needs and speak to where we are in our world and our lives, then we are honouring our ancestors, our faith groups, our cultures, and ourselves.

Before getting back to the specific Confucian ritual, I want to share some stories and pictures of my experiences with evolving offerings.

When I was in university, I did some field research at a dharma centre where they had regular rituals, and we were often there for those rituals. Usually, there was some mention of hungry ghosts or preta, probably the saddest beings in the Buddhist worldview. Hungry ghosts are insatiable beings with miniscule mouths, long thin necks, and massive bellies. They epitomize our cravings – the same cravings which prevent us from leaving samsara. One time when it was close to Valentine’s Day, the centre put out cinnamon hearts and gummie bears. These we offered to the hungry ghosts. Of course we did. Of course Canadian hungry ghosts around Valentine’s Day would be desiring our cinnamon hearts. Are hungry ghosts only to be found in Tibet?

But that’s a ‘Western’ example. We Westerners are always trying to mess up tradition right? What are Asians doing?

This picture is from a famous temple in Hong Kong. It is an offering made under a tablet remembering all the ‘unloved and uncared for’ souls in Hong Kong. I’m pretty sure Tiger Beer, being from Singapore and all, was not the usual beverage of the Hong Kong ancestors, but blessings to whomever put out the food and remembered those who have no one to remember them.

This picture is from a temple in Korea…and yes…those are Chupa Chups. Specifically, a bouquet of Chupa Chups!

From Inwangsan, a Shaman hill in central Seoul. These offerings are made for the mountain spirits.

And from a different place on Inwangsan – note the package. Nobody made this specifically for the spirits, but they were bought and offered for those spirits.

From our recent trip to Bali: this is a traditional offering which literally litters the sidewalks, and can be found in front of every tiny roadside shrine. But I don’t want you to notice the packaged candy. I want you to notice the bits of rice and meat being offered. When we made and offered ours after preparing our food at our Balinese cooking school, we offered bits of what we had made and were about to consume. In other words, while this is a ‘traditional’ offering, it is made based on what the family is about eat for the rest of the day. The offering is tightly related to the everyday lives of those making it.

And then the dogs, birds, ants, and creepy crawlers of all kinds come and consume the offerings.

Veering off from food for a moment, these are the mizuko dressed and sitting at the feet of Jizo, the bodhisattva for children in Japan. Yes, children, but more specifically for aborted, stillborn, or miscarried fetuses. There are several rituals for these potential beings in Japan, and part of the rituals is offering small toys like pinwheels. I’ve seen much more contemporary and trendy toys too, but I didn’t take any pictures of those.

And in Singapore’s Chinatown, you can buy all the paper convertibles, iphone, Rolexes, and apple computers to burn for your dead loved ones. In fact, in New York, a storekeeper got in trouble for the paper luxury brand purses he was selling for funeral rites. The authorities were worried about copyright infringement you see.

And not offering but image related, there’s a beautiful church called Saenamteo in Seoul that everyone should visit if they like to pilgrimage. Not only is the altar space decorated in a stone Koreanized rendering of Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints, but also, when I was there in 2007, they had a biracial rendering of the Holy Family. Alas, when I went back in 2008, the Holy Family was decidedly white, but maybe it has changed now. Anyway, Jesus doesn’t need to be white, and Jesus doesn’t need to be 1st century Middle Eastern looking either.

Finally, when it came to my own father’s funeral, cremation, and internment, we had a very lovely funeral director. He gave us the urn options, and then turned to us and said, ‘But really…most people choose to forgo the cost of an urn unless they plan to display the ashes in their home. We had one family who chose to bury the ashes in…his coffee thermos.” It seems the man was a coffee addict and would have liked nothing more than to be close to his coffee in death. It was then that it became very clear to us that we would bury dad’s ashes in his tool box. He was a welder at work and a woodworker in his spare time. He did handy work for the church, the farm where we rode, the grandparents. He also had a thing about people not replacing his tools after using them. His coworkers joked at the funeral that after his death they went around and made sure all of his tools were accounted for and in their right place. They didn’t want to be haunted. The neighbourhood knew him as the man who was always outside doing yard work and fixing things. Everyone understood exactly why he went into the ground in his toolbox. And when I carried what remained of him in the box and placed him in the ground, it was an honour, and it was the best way to honour him.

Now you might say, but Msleetobe, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and Canada are different countries with different cultures. Don’t conflate them. But I’m trying to show the ways in which different cultures and traditions are responding to contemporary life and circumstances. But Msleetobe, Confucianism is a very different – and much more rigid – tradition than Balinese Hinduism, Daoism, mainstream Western Protestantism, or recent Jizo rituals. Yes, it is a unique tradition as all traditions are unique, but it is a tradition, and there are similar patterns between religions, similar impulses, similar meanings, similar yearnings to do similar things. Or, you might argue, maybe the uncared for souls of Hong Kong, or the foreign tourists who died on the beaches of Thailand because of the tsunami, are outside of the regular religious traditions and social systems, but if your dad really loved pizza, would you deny him that when you remember him because it goes against the tradition we currently observe?

Of course there are other issues – did the ancestor in question like pizza? Or is it a quick and easy way to fill the table when you didn’t have enough time, energy, or motivation to make the traditional dishes? Is the pizza placement done out of care or out of carelessness? Only that individual family can know the answer to that question. But in a time when many families are buying the necessary food, are not growing their own fruit because they live in an apartment in the middle of a metropolis, or prepare and perform the ritual with a great deal of han in their hearts because of the sexist aspects of the preparation, family turmoil, or unresolved issues with the family member being honoured, I’m not sure we should be judging. Sure it’s easier to judge the family who chose to buy FOREIGN! food and place it on the table because it is a highly visible sign of evolving tradition, but that doesn’t mean that there are not more subtle and less visible ways tradition is changing, evolving, and in some families, fading away. It will be interesting to see as younger people die who have traveled more, acquired different tastes, married people from other cultures, and grown up in a Korea bursting with food from around the world, how the traditional table continues to evolve and change. But no, in this bloggers’ view, a tradition that speaks to and responds to the needs of the people who are practicing is not a bad tradition. It is in fact, the way of tradition.

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Chuseok morning started with a trip to the inlaw’s Catholic church for a special mass in lieu of the usual memorial rituals. I’m more than happy to attend church with them twice a year in order to avoid the more difficult and problematic memorial rituals many other wives have to go through. Not only this, but the priest has a truly awful singing voice. Truly awful. It’s always sort of a joy to sit in the service and wait for that magical moment when he just can’t help himself and starts singing directly into his microphone. This year, I was waiting in heightened anticipation after 40 minutes, feeling like maybe, just maybe, someone had talked to him about the situation and asked him to refrain from singing because the service was completely free of off pitch wailing. But during the very last hymn, while I was diligently following the Korean text and singing myself, I felt the pew shake with Mr. Lee’s unvocalized laughter and realized that the dear priest was wailing away. Bless his tone deaf heart. His voice is something joyous to look forward to during the Korean holidays.

After that, we went back to the inlaws house for lunch where, for the first time ever, I was not told to exercise more, or asked with concerned tones about my ‘health’, but rather told I’m not fat enough! Even Mr. Lee commented that women in Korea really can’t win when it comes to weight. 99% of the time it is lose weight! LOSE WEIGHT! Exercise more!!! But then when you are pregnant everyone says ‘EAT MORE! It’s okay to eat! You aren’t big enough!!!!’ (And then right after pregnancy, it’s…’Why are you still fat? You had the baby. You should be small!) Anyway, I thought that was quite funny and really don’t care either way. I was healthy before, I’m healthy now, that’s all that matters to me.

We also had the recurring conversation about no, cats do not need to be bathed in the same way dogs do, and no, our cats are not a health hazard. Mr. Lee also assured people (again) that, no, it was not harmful for Msleetobe to fly during her first trimester, especially when she had 0 morning sickness, no complications, no cramping or bleeding, AND the KOREAN doctor said it was okay.

The new conversation topic was that Mr. Lee explained to people that in Canada, fans don’t kill. Really it was his choice to bring it up. I didn’t bring it up at all. I always avoid that topic. I’m sure we’ll return to that one at future family functions!^^

The most surprising part of the day was how much Dragon liked Korean food. Goodness. From the first songpyeon, he kicked his heart out. And then after the kimchi, bibimbap, and soup, he set up a barrage of kicking that made me actually have to stand up because even at 19 weeks he was hurting me! Goodness. Everyone always says ‘after you have sugar the baby will move.’ Well, sugar’s got nothing on hanshik! He’s never ever acted like that before, so I think he loved it. Oh, and the inlaws all loved the chocolate chip cookies and muffins I brought. FIL actually took the cookie container, filled the empty space with muffins that were supposed to be taken to grandma’s house, and stashed it for later. YES!!!! After the great pie disaster of ’09, I have finally found food that they like AND I can make without weeping all day in the kitchen.

After lunch we moved to eldest Uncle’s house where the grandparents live, and to our great amazement, Grandma was hanging out in the living room! She’s had a number of health problems, and I have never seen her outside of her room in the two years of knowing her. In fact, in general everyone was healthier this year which is of course a great blessing.

I was overfed (again^^) by uncle’s wife with the words ‘you need to eat, you’re too small, it’s okay to eat a lot! SIL made me a lovely apron (with room to ‘expand’), eldest niece had the iTouch we bought her last Seollal in her hand the entire time (even taking a nap with it in her hand, and only waking up when her younger sister attempted to take it away from her), and Mr. Lee ate enough meat to ensure that I don’t have to make meat for him for a few more days (warming my veggie heart).

So all in all, a good Chuseok. Lots of food. No drama. Funny relatives. A tone deaf priest.

Anyone have Chuseok loveliness (or nightmares) to share?

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My dear friend P asked me to blog about my first Chuseok as a wife, so this one’s for her.

Despite the worried looks from older Korean managers, and the whispered questions dripping with concerned from coworkers, Chuseok really wasn’t that bad as a wife.  This was my second Chuseok with the family, and the fifth major family event I’ve attended, but of course the first one in an ‘official’ capacity.  All the other times I’ve been with them, they’ve insisted that I sit down with the men and not help with the cooking/cleaning because I wasn’t yet a wife (or…’not a REAL wife’ until all the weddings were finished).  Last Chuseok was the first major event, and with the exception of the language, type of food served, and the ever present Chuseok specials blaring from the tv, I didn’t find it that different in terms of work or spirit from my Canadian Thanksgiving/Christmas/Easter experiences.  If you ever help out mum with the turkey or the dessert, it’s not such a far stretch to be making songpyeon or jeon

But I do realize that my experience as a wife of a Korean is very different from other people, in part because there are actually several factors which can make Chuseok=hell for wives which means that the experience can differ radically between families, and in part because I am a foreigner…and my family seriously has no idea what to do with me.  I’ve offered to cook – to take cooking lessons from my mother-in-law or brother-in-law’s wife so I can learn to do it ‘right’ – but I’ve been told that’s not necessary.  Partly I think it’s because my brother-in-law married 8 years ago, so his wife’s role is clearly defined and she and our mother-in-law have been doing these events for years together.  But I also think that they don’t think I’m actually able to do it.  Something about the confluence of the belief that Western women are homemaker-deficient and the idea that Korean food/culture etc is ‘too difficult’ for ‘foreigners’ to gasp.  But, actually, those ideas work in my favour, so I’ll let them slide for now.  So this time, my duties were 1) make a non-Korean dessert for everyone to share (this is a great one if you want to impress your inlaws who don’t like cake that is very sweet..all the female relatives had 2 helpings pre-lunch, and my eldest niece came back for fourths) 2) show up 3) survive through 3 meals and a Catholic church services over a 10 hour period.  That was really a marathon and test of my ability to struggle through all-Korean, all the time conversations, but considering the work many Korean women do – and the work my mother puts into a Thanksgiving dinner, I think that’s pretty damn good!

But apart from these reasons for my laid back Chuseok, there are several other factors which led to my situation this year and conversely, contribute to the burden many women face.

1)     Our family lives nearby.  I suppose this could = hell for some people who have to deal with regular inlaw intrusions, but in our case it works out well.  We see Mr. Lee’s family about once a month for a big event, but then after a couple of hours, we get to go home and sleep in our own bed and live in our own space.  If you have to travel half way across the country (a small country that becomes completely deadlocked during holidays), and stay for 2, 3, 4, 5 days in a small house with a gaggle of Korean family members (sleeping on the floor – getting drunk together, doing mass-family outings together) – I think this could really get on some people’s nerves.  But we can see the family more often (thus shorter periods), and that really helps in reducing stress and workload.

2)     A small family.  Of course my family doesn’t live here…which might not matter if I were in a traditional Korean family.  In the past, when a woman married, she literally left her family and was responsible only to her new family.  She didn’t go to visit her natal family during holidays which probably also led to the stress of doing everything for husband’s kin without being able to see their loved ones.  Of course, this is changing, but it also means that while many women do visit their family members, they also have more responsibilities heaped onto them by both families.  In our case, we have the added fact that Mr. Lee’s entire paternal extended family immigrated en masse to the US decades ago (his father is the only one who refused to go), and two of his mother’s four sisters live abroad (LA and Australia).  Therefore, we only have two gatherings – parents + siblings, and reduced extended maternal family (grandparents, uncle, 2 aunts and their families).  This really reduces travel time/stress/and amount of people we have to greet.

3)     North KoreaMr. Lee’s parents are both from North Korea – they fled during the Chinese invasion during the Korean War (not recent defectors!) There is that sad fact that they can never go back to their home town and we can’t visit our ancestor’s tombs located there (we don’t even discuss it because of this sense of loss) – but it also means that we don’t need to join the traffic jams to grave areas.

4)     Catholics.  The big big big reason why traditional holidays pose such a burden to Korean women is because of the ancestral memorial rites.  Traditionally, the women cook and cook and cook for these rituals while the men relax or gamble…and then the women are barred from participating in the rites.  I have had female students who are now allowed to join the rituals, and I’ve had the odd male student who helps his mum with the cooking – but that’s still the exception to the rule.  But many Catholics and Protestants don’t do the rituals (believing that making prostrations to ancestors is an affront to the 1st Commandment, or that these rites are at least in some conflict with Christian beliefs).  Therefore, our family goes to a special Mass where people sprinkle a small amount of incense, bow at the waist, and deposit some money with a loved one’s name on it in a basket.  Not too difficult.  And I get to practice my Korean singing skills.

5)     ‘We’re not that yangban.’ That’s a quote from Mr. Lee himself.  Yangban refers to the elite class in the Confucian heiarchy.  While Korean culture doesn’t really follow this social structure anymore (money is a much stronger marker now), it now often refers to people, families, or institutions with a strong sense of Joseon (Lee) Dynasty values and ethics.  Of course my family has a more rigid notion of authority than my Canadian family.  And of course males are considered more authoritative in the Korean family (but not Mr. Lee and my family!), but they are much more relaxed about such things than some, and this means that some of the ‘manners,’ ways of speaking, and ways of doing things are also more relaxed.  

6)     My father-in-law can be authoritarian.  Times are a chang’n, and my mother-in-law has a great deal more of force than in Mr. Lee’s childhood.  However, the father’s opinion still trumps all when there is a direct order, and when I went to clear the table, help with the washing up, my father-in-law gave me a very direct order to sit beside him and watch tv (and then he literally pulled me down).  Then he ordered Mr. Lee to clear the dishes instead.  This occurred with much laughter and joking.  But make NO mistake.  My father-in-law in not a feminist and does not harbour equal gender role beliefs.  However, for some reason – maybe because I’m a foreigner – maybe because he doesn’t know what to do with me – but most likely because he wants to practice his English and get me to practice my Korean – he told me over and over again to sit down.  I know my mother-in-law does not entirely feel the same way (she has told me over and over again that I must cook for Mr. Lee and that he must NOT do any cooking), but my father-in-law’s opinion must be followed.  And so I sat and handed dishes to Mr. Lee. 

7)     Mr. Lee is the youngest child.  How many times have I been told by people not to marry the oldest son?  This is another place where we benefit from the Confucian hierarchy.  From a cultural standpoint, we are much less responsible for his parents, and I, as the youngest daughter-in-law do not have as many duties.  Certainly if you have horrible in-laws and horrible older sister-in-laws, life can be hell if they make many demands and give many orders.  But as I’ve said before, my brother-in-law’s wife is a freaking saint – and has an extraordinarily sweet personality.  She takes on everything and tries to make life easier for everyone but herself.  And as I say to myself every single day – I have a lot to learn from her…

So those are the factors which I think contributed to a less stressful and more enjoyable Chuseok holiday.  And I would imagine that depending on the individual circumstances of each woman and each family that their experiences very much depend on these same factors.  If she is from a very yangban-esq family in a rural area far from Seoul – and a family which diligently follows the ancestor memorial rituals – she will probably have a much harder time than a woman who has a smaller, more ‘modern’ Protestant city who lives nearby. 

I do worry about one thing though – that despite my father-in-law’s insistence that I ‘be with the men,’ that deep down my mother-in-law thinks that I am lazy or incompetent.  In my perfect world, Mr. Lee and I would both help with preparation and clean up with the female relatives.  I actually would really like to help out more because it would give me something tangible to do in a sea of complicated Korean conversations.  One of my coworkers – a very very tall Kiwi who is married to a Korean – has taken to donning an apron and cooking all the major family meals because he feels more useful (and can avoid soju laced gambling losses). 

But at the same time, I realize that my brother-in-law’s wife has taken 8 years to get into her role, and that it will probably take a bit longer for the whole family to fit me in.  So I need to be patient and wait for that role to slowly evolve.  For now at least, I will bake my non-Korean desserts and try to amuse my father-in-laws as my contributions to the Chuseok fun.

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On a Good Place to Die

This might seem like a strange post to make on the eve of Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving), but I think it has a lot to do with the spirit of the holidays – ancestors, family, thankfulness, and honour.

I’ve written at length about my father’s death and how his life and death affected me in a profound way (here and here), but I haven’t yet written a lot about my mother.  A few months before he died, the community preschool she worked at, which had been running for several decades (educating, in some cases, three generations of the same family), had shut down because the owner, and a good friend of my mother’s, had decided that she needed to retire.  He also died a few months before my sister left home for university, meaning that the three things that defined my mother’s life – being a wife, being a mother, and being a teacher, were taken away from her within less than a year.  

I don’t think that I need to explain further the profundity of those losses – coming so close together – were for my mother.  She, like many women, lived for everyone else but herself, and her identity was tied up in those roles which were all taken from her.  It was an incredibly painful year of loss with just the glimmer of self discovery. 

But then she took a hospice course through the VON.  We have a rather large car parts factory in my hometown, and when it was built, the company donated a mansion on the edge of the land to the VON to use as a hospice.  It was a very cathartic course for my mother.  She was able to talk openly about death, and she was able to hear people who had been intimately connected with death tell their stories.  One older man had been an 18 year old soldier during WWII when he had been ordered to retrieve body parts from the water after a ship had been bombed.  Such open discussions and lessons on how to help the dying were really helpful for my mum in terms of allowing her to express her grief and turn it into helping someone.

She now volunteers at the hospice once a week, and when my sister and I were in Hong Kong last Christmas, she spent an extra shift with the dying and their families.  She tries to contribute to something which our family never had – a place of peace where patients and their loved ones can be together to share their last days. 


It’s not the only new thing she has started to do, and it’s not the only new role which is helping to define her new identity, but I think it is an important way for her to continue to work through loss by contributing to a place which helps the terminally ill and their families to live peacefully until the end. 


The day before we left my hometown, Mr. Lee and I went with her to donate one of our large wedding arrangements and see the place.  It’s incredibly beautiful, and it is, to state it plainly, the best of places in which to die. 


There was a Hungarian-Canadian cancer patient there being pushed around in his wheelchair by his large extended family.  I’m sure that they felt pain, I’m sure that they were in deep grief over the looming death of their loved one – but I’m ever grateful that there is a place where they, and so many others in our community, can go and be together in order to honour the patient’s life and legacy.  My father didn’t have such a place, but I think by volunteering at the hospice, my mother honours him…and perhaps more importantly…honours her own life and potential to change and grow. 


So on this Chuseok, when I go to Mass with my in-laws and do the Korean Catholic memorial to the dead – on this Chuseok when I will pray for my father and the newly-departed Mary-Lou – the preschool owner and teacher to three generations who passed away on Saturday – I will also say a prayer of thankfulness for my mother who has survived – survived in body, mind, and spirit, and who has decided to remake her life and her identity.

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In my fourth month in Korea my grandfather was hospitalized. I told my students that on my break I was going to call my grandfather to see how he was doing. One middle-aged well-educated lawyer looked at me confused and said, ‘But I thought foreigners didn’t have families.’

Wow. I wasn’t born. I manifested.

It’s a common theme I’ve heard over my years here: either we don’t have families or we don’t have extended families. I blame American tv. People watch Friends or Sex and the City which are repeated ad nauseum on cable channels here and see the emphasis placed on the urban family as a stand-in for family connections (my students always seem to miss the fact that Ross and Monica are…siblings!) Many Korean dramas are ‘family dramas,’ or ‘soap operas’ as they are called here, which revolve around mother-in-law/daughter-in-law conflicts, marital struggles, money lending woes and other family matters. Since most foreign imported shows (minus the Discovery channel kind) involve crime, the supernatural, or reality tv bliss, one can understand the confusion.

I also think that people in all cultures tend to stick to past conceptions long after they are relevant – for example, that America is a ‘Christian’ nation or that Canada is a health-care utopia (For the record, I’m an NDPer, but I still think our national health care needs major reform). Coming from years of being seeped in Korean neo-Confucianism, Korea likes to think of itself as the ‘courteous nation’ that takes care of its elderly. I can’t begin to count the number of times that I’ve heard ‘Koreans care about their families’ and in the same breath ‘foreigners don’t take care of their elders.’

The reality is that Korea has just as many social problems as the rest of the developed world – and perhaps more as its rapid development has created problems at a far more rapid pace than other countries. Despite some decline in recent years, Korea’s divorce rate is still among the highest in the world with middle age and senior couples leading the way. (Despite this fact, I’ve only ever met one Korean who would admit to being divorced…and when she admitted this fact in class, she was met with strong criticism). Korea’s abortion rate is astronomical. Few people live with their grandparents in extended family units, and the people who say they intend to live with their grandchildren in the future is declining. The birth rate is serious trouble. Elder abuse is on the rise. And one only has to go to the many parks and subway stations which are filled with poor elderly people to know that not all senior citizens are taken care of by their families.

The reality of course is that Korea is facing many of the same trends as Western countries albeit for different reasons. More Canadian women are delaying pregnancy to pursue education and career, but they eventually have a family because there are social structures like mandatory maternity leave and a network of childcare options which allow people to pursue both family and career goals. In contrast, Koreans often cite high after-school tuition costs and lack of career options for working mothers (it is still common for women to be fired or pushed out of positions in many industries/companies when they get pregnant or give birth).

Canada also has a serious problem with people refusing personal responsibility for taking care of their grandparents. Canadians tend to plan more for their own retirement, and children tend to rely more on the social safety net for taking care of the sick and the elderly. In effect, they tend to give up all responsibility to the state.

In contrast, older generations in Korea always expected their children to take care of them in their golden years, but the current trend is to pour more money in the education of youth. Therefore, I know of several situations where grown adults have justified not providing for their elderly parents because they contend that after school tuition fees and other expenses for their children are too steep. As a result, many elderly people have a very small social safety net to fall back on (based on the somewhat debunked idea that people should care for their own) if their children refuse to take care of them.

So why all this depressing info on the state of the family in the developed and almost developed world? Because it is apparent that while Canadian and Korean families have cultural, social, and economic realities that contribute to certain differences, they are in fact families. And as families there are significant similarities among these differences.

Having only met Mr. Lee’s parents once previous to this Thanksgiving, I was interested to see how a Korean extended family interacted during a family gathering. I have to say…it was pretty similar. The kids tried to avoid as much adult time as possible by running to the park, zoning out with their cell phones, and retreating to the computer room. The women bustled around making food and chastising children (when they could be found). A whole lot of food was consumed. A whole lot more than was necessary. People watched tv with stoned expressions on their faces and glazed eyes after said food was consumed not once but twice in one afternoon. The elephants in the room were tiptoed around and vaguely referred to in rash moments of passive aggressiveness. The same topics of health, school, work, and past Thanksgiving were discussed and rehashed with different groups of relatives. Alcohol was consumed a little by some and a lot by others. And large amounts of food were packaged and parceled out to guests to eat in the days to come. Sure – there were no turkey sandwiches (and soups and stews and casseroles) to endlessly eat in the days following the holidays, but I’m still eating 송편 (rice cakes) and 전 (pan fried food) from last weekend.

In fact, if you compare FI’s extended family and mine, you will see a similar amount of minor scandals, money disputes, family member fallouts, deaths, divorces, and angst. And you will also find a similar amount of care, concern, love, and long journeys of understanding and reconciliation. Each scandal, dispute, or resolution has a cultural, a familial, a personal element or flavour, but they are essentially similar in their structure and underlying meaning.

I am sure I will encounter a plethora of situations which take on a different form from my Canadian or my personal family experiences which I will blog about as my life progresses. But for now I want to affirm that all people have families. Those families may include different members. They might have different histories. And they might look different from one another. But all families are about the interaction between people and the journey that they make together as a bound entity.

I do not have a Canadian family and a Korean family. Or a mother’s family and a father’s family. I have one big bizarre mass of family which moves and pulls, sometimes maddeningly, in different directions but in essence, this mass is essentially striving for the same goal.

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In Canada, we consider Thanksgiving a time to stop and consider our blessings over the past year. It’s not a Korean custom, but I thought I would take the opportunity to give thanks for my soon-to-be Korean family.

I’m thankful that, despite their initial misgivings, Mr. Lee’s parents have been very supportive of our marriage once they met us. I have heard (and seen) more than a few disastrous situations where Korean families of bi-cultural couples went so far as to threaten to disown their children, or they stopped speaking to their kids for a whole year (despite living in the same house). Therefore, I am thankful that his parents have welcomed me into the family and given us their blessing.

I’m thankful that his soon-to-be 70 year old father is studying English in an attempt to communicate with me more fluently. Nobody asked him to do it…he started by himself and has now found a new later-in-life passion for language.

I’m thankful that my mother – a white woman in a 99% white English speaking village – has started studying Korean by herself. She has almost 0% chance of being able to practice with a real Korean where she lives, but she wants to be able to know both languages her future grandchildren will speak.

I’m thankful for Mr. Lee’s cousin, who despite having had her wisdom teeth taken out the day before, was able to carry on a perfect conversation in English that made me feel welcomed and part of the family.

I’m thankful for the amazing amount of vegetarian food my future mother in law and her sister were able to make. Koreans love their meat, and despite having a traditional diet low in animal proteins, have embraced it fully in the past few decades. I know what I can and can’t eat here, and I am able to communicate my dietary restrictions easily in Korean, but I still often get dishes with hidden beef, spam, or chicken broth because people don’t consider these things ‘meat.’ However, despite the lack of cultural awareness about vegetarianism, his family members made a veggie version of a traditional Thanksgiving soup, and a ton of traditional dishes without meat (or chicken broth, or fish sauce) just for me.

I’m thankful that his family kindly accepted my disastrous pumpkin pie…and that his nieces actually seemed to enjoy it.

I’m thankful that my soon-to-be Korean family lives in Seoul. That means we will never have to brave a 12 hour traffic jam to get to Daegu or stand on a train with an infant to get to the family homestead. We will always be able to ride an empty subway and then spend the rest of the weekend relaxing in a city that comes to a standstill over the holidays.

And finally…

I’m thankful for family in general. My Canadian family members have never been each other’s secret keepers, but parts of the family are close, and I grew up regularly seeing my grandparents and spending time with my extended family. Living in Korea for the past four years I have felt a great deal of freedom because of lack of family commitments, but also a great deal of sadness at being physically separated from multi-generational interaction. Family causes great burdens, but it also brings joy and security.

I am greatly blessed.

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I Hate Pie Crusts

Being Korean Thanksgiving, I am meeting Mr. Lee’s extended family for the first time. I’ve met his parents before, but only once as the ‘intended’ fiance. Since Canadian Thanksgiving is just a week away, I wanted to bake a pumpkin pie to share my culture with them and to impress my future mother in law with my cooking skills. I’m not the world’s best cook, but I enjoy cooking, and I make pretty great muffins and curries.

I’ve never made a pie from scratch (we don’t have frozen pie crusts in Seoul), but I did manage to find canned pumpkin (for a price…) in the ‘black market.’ I decided to try out a crust recipe before I baked ‘the’ pie just to try it out.

Well…I’ve been baking pie crusts ALL day. I had no idea a rolled pie crust was so difficult. I’ve made 4 different crusts…put 3 in the garbage, and finally gave up and went with a finger pressed crust I haven’t had a chance to taste yet. But then when I went to open up the canned pumpkin, I realized my can opener was broken! So I had to use A KNIFE to open the can. As I was becoming flustered, I didn’t re-read the recipe before I poured in the evapourated milk….and I put too much in…and stirred it in before I realized my mistake. I had to pour part of the mixture out in the sink – I’m not entirely sure what came out of the pie. This may be one watery pie!!! Oh, and I also broke an egg on the floor.

I’m at the maniacal laughing stage where I’m realizing this pie might be horrific, and I might have spent all day fruitlessly making a stupid pie no one will eat. I know it’s just a pie…but I also really wanted to contribute something special to this first family Thanksgiving and impress my future in laws. (Not to mention I have absolutely nothing to show for this day)

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Today is the first day of 추석 or Korean Thanksgiving. First off, I’d like to thank the lovely people at my workplace for choosing to gift us with -incredibly yummy massive pears instead of the stinky fish other friends received for the holidays.

Today is a holiday for most office workers, government workers, and schools, but stores are still open. I’m about to head out to find a gift for my future mother in law, but before I go, a little taste of the pre-추석 preparation fun I’ve been having.

To demonstrate my good future daughter in law intentions, I asked Mr. Lee to give me the titles I need to use for his family members. You see, in Korea you can’t just say Aunt X and Uncle X or even grandma and grandpa. There is a special word for mother’s older brother just as there is a different word for father’s younger brother. Mr. Lee didn’t actually know the words (because titles sometimes depend on the gender of the speaker!), so he looked up all the words on Naver:

* my father : 아버님
* my mother : 어머님
* my sister : (큰)형님
* my sister’s husband : 서방님
* my sister’s daughters : [call their real names]
* my brother : 아주버님
* my brother’s wife : (작은)형님

[my mother-side relatives]
* my grandfather : 외할아버님
* my grandmother : 외할머님
* my uncle : 외삼촌님
* my uncle’s wife : 외숭모님
* my aunts : 이모님
* my uncle’s or aunts’ children : [call their real names]

I’m sure most of you out there don’t read Korean, but you can still see that there is quite the difference for each of the family members.

Thank God most of Mr. Lee’s family immigrated to the US and Australia….I only need to know titles for his mother’s side of the family!

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On Gift Giving

Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) is coming up next week. It’s one of the most important Korean families where families gather together to honour their relatives, and in agricultural times past, show gratitude for the harvest. Chuseok is above all a family holiday. While Korea is a relatively tiny country, the Chuseok traffic jams are legendary as people try to return en masse to their hometowns for the holidays . The stores are usually packed in the days before the holiday, so since I had a day off today, I decided to head off to COSTCO to find some Chuseok presents (COSTCO is a good place to go to find gift baskets and nicely packaged foreign alcohol).

Mr Lee’s family is not extraordinarily traditional, but this is the first time I will be meeting the family as a future daughter in law. When I met his parents for the first time during this year’s Lunar New Year, I bought his father Scotch and his mother an enormous gift basket of chocolate and cookies.

In many ways, gift giving is easier in Korea than in Canada because gifts are quite standardized across holidays and special occasions. Your friend has just moved into a new house? You should buy facial tissue and cleaning supplies. Going to a wedding? Make sure you give your white envelope full of an odd multiples of bills (unless you get up to the 100 000 won mark) to the people at the envelope collection table or you might not get a meal ticket to eat! Getting a present from your boss for Chuseok? You are likely to receive a large box of squid, multipack of olive oil, or a beautifully decorated gift box of Spam. Korean gift giving is usually quite practical if you enjoy these products.

Nevertheless, the difficult part of gift giving is that the packaging is far more important than the actual product. It’s always amazing to see the exorbitant prices people are willing to pay for a perfectly shaped melon in a box with a festive ribbon tied around it just so. In fact, last year I wanted to buy my FFIL Canadian alcohol, but I couldn’t find any that was properly packaged in a faux satin case. FI also told me that a large gift basket nicely wrapped and placed in an elegant box was more important than the actual chocolates and cookies themselves, so I complied. Unfortunately, today…9 months later…he chose to tell me that the present which I had chosen based on his recommendation was in fact not ‘good enough’ because there was too much packaging and not enough chocolate.


Mr. Lee meant to tell me this in a kind way to help me choose a better gift this year; however, the news crushed my aspirations to be a perfect future daughter in law. Last time I met them I wanted to make a good first impression which included demonstrating my knowledge of Korean traditions and willingness to incorporate them into my own life. However, despite my best attempts to learn the local culture, adhere to the advice of people who should be in the know, and follow the department store trends, I had failed my first gift giving test.

On the surface, this incident seems very minor. So I bought the wrong gift. Nevertheless, this incident is indicative of many issues I face here. No matter how much you read, how many questions you ask, and how many cultural trends you observe, there is always an underlying cultural understanding one can only know after long term experiences in a particular society. Despite the fact that the gifts are in the store – pre-packaged and prominently displayed, there are subtle differences between the ways in which gifts are presented and the different kinds of gifts given in certain circumstances. An American friend likened it to giving your American future mother in law a soap and shower gel gift set. It might be beautifully wrapped in the Body Shop, and you might like the products yourself, but she might interpret it as a subtle stab at her personal hygiene. Oh those silly cultural minefields.

This is also a good reminder that despite the fact that I’m living in a different culture, I should continue to trust my instincts. Despite the advice I received and the products I currently see in stores, I should have followed my first instinct to find a better balance between quality and pretty packaging. I’ve also been a little afraid to try and inject some of my culture into his family. My extended family is ridiculously multicultural, and my family were always used to me bringing home people with halal eating requirements or different holiday traditions. However, his family has absolutely no personal experience or cultural expectation that their Chuseok or any other holiday could be celebrated in any way other than their usual way. (It is abnormal to even invite family outsiders to dinner parties in Korea. It is much more common to meet friends at restaurants than to host a dinner party). It must be a huge shock not only to have a future foreign daughter-in-law, but then to experience Korean holidays with a foreign face at the table. The last time I met his family, I wanted to bring some food as is common in my cultural milieu, but that idea was quashed by my FI. This year Chuseok and Canadian Thanksgiving are only a week apart, so instead of asking Mr. Lee for permission to bring food, I told him that I was making a pumpkin pie. Whether or not his family enjoys the taste, I think it’s time for me to honour both of our traditions where I can.

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