Tag Archives: tradition

News In Brief

The strangest names I’ve encountered here in Korea are Meen Gook and Ji Wan, not really for their sounds but rather for their meanings—the first means Republic and the second means Support, and when you combine those meanings with the odd Korean tendency to add a vowel onto people’s given names, you get results like Republicky and Supporty. The latter gender-neutral name is one of the most common and at least its sound is actually rather euphonious, especially when you compare it with all the little Jung Chuls and Dong Hos and Hyeon Beens we have running around here.

There is an ever-present fear that the radioactivity from Japan will poison my unborn son; and a possibility, however remote, of sending my wife to live in America until the melting reactor cores cool off. I dream of a world without man-made atomic fission, oil companies, deforestation, overpopulation, mass slaughter, cultural homogenization, hunger, disease, poverty, television; in short, a world without people (à la that X Files episode).

I haven’t been writing here or posting new pictures because I’m focusing on completing my novel before the baby arrives. This living deadline will surely sweep past me—or, rather, poop, pee, and shriek through the night, over my shoulders—but I must try to meet it nonetheless.

I attended my second ancestor ceremony, or Jae Sa, last night. I will reiterate that the great platter of food and the fire and the incense and the bowing and the chanting and the burning of the ancestor’s name and the setting out of steel chopsticks for her to devour the banquet prepared in her honor is one of the most fascinating things about the country and appears to connect the modern world very clearly to an ancient past which a different set of Christian cultural rites have almost totally erased from the West. There are only two things I can think of that are comparable to it: pouring one out for my dead homies and leaving a glass of wine out overnight for Elijah on Passover. She was represented by a recent professional photograph of an old Korean woman in huge 70s-style glasses and pink traditional clothing.

It appears that we were worshiping the second wife of an especially polygamous great uncle, who was rich enough to afford two wives at the same time several decades ago. Her son seemed like an Asian version of Joe Pesci and was therefore rather intimidating; he joked that the disaster in Japan had pushed Dokdo—a few rocks in the Sea of Japan, subject of a territorial dispute, that the Koreans care about fiercely and that most Japanese have apparently never heard of (this debate is typical of Korea-Japan relations)—closer to Eel-bone, the Korean word for Japan.

Koreans seem to care a lot about what’s happened there and the disaster would appear to have dampened their fierce hatred and envy for one of their closest neighbors, but my wife told me that some horrifying Korean ‘Netizens’ said that the earthquake was a good thing and that the Japanese deserved it or whatever. The power those people wield here has driven celebrities to suicide before.

One more bit on Dokdo, from Wikipedia—

“En route to Liancourt Rocks, the ferry shows an animated film featuring a giant robot warding off Japanese invaders.”

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Meet The Ancestors

Under the great evergreen Korean mountains the two mounds of dirt sat, and to get to them you had to first drive away from the egg crates of Gyeongju and get your car sprayed for some sort of cattle disease that has ravaged the country like a voracious band of all-devouring wildfire, providing yet another reason to shirk meat for good, since if you turn on the news right now all you’ll see are groaning cows getting stuck with syringe guns by faceless, goggled, gas-masked men in hazmat suits—steaks pumped full of medicine, just like mom used to make it, mmm, 맛있어요!

So you shirk the meat, you shirk the sprays of disinfectant freezing on the tar, and you shirk my predictable digressions, and eventually you come to a really small town by any standard—towns in Korea usually possess in excess of 300,000 people, most of whom pack themselves into those manila-orange egg crates I mentioned—a town consisting of a few houses scattered around a few more fields tucked in between the great mountains, where half the forests burned down because half the men in Korea are chainsmokers—and once you arrive at this town you’ve got to propel yourself along the curving, winding, snaking road, past more and more fallow fields of frozen dirt clumps, and press on as the road thins to a ribbon of asphalt, and you make one or two sharp third world-style turns and think the car will certainly tumble over the side into the manure, and spin its wheels in the air as helplessly as a cow toppled by disease, but then the car stops and you’re out plodding through the snow and ice, over a manmade ridge and closer and closer to the soaring mountains.

Climb up and down a small cement dam without a drop of water to irrigate the quiet fields, and pull yourself up past some sharp brambles and you’re there—the two mounds of heaped dirt are there. Your Korean mother-in-law explains that they were much higher in the past, but they’ve since declined—the hills piled over the tombs of kings in the ancient capital of Gyeongju have grass growing on them to preserve their vastness—and before long you help her pour out a cup of soju (or hard rice liquor) and scatter a few chips of some kind over the dirt.

Then you bow all the way down on your knees, twice, with your forehead falling softly on your hands, the right one crossed on top of the left, and after that your changboneem (or mother-in-law for husbands) tells her parents what’s up, what’s going on, who’s here to say hello, and that’s it. She pours the soju into the earth and off you go, repeating the ceremony in all its essentials at the graves of two other relatives.

I was happy to participate in this seemingly quaint exercise, this seeming cultural activity, though in fact it is neither of those things to my mother-in-law—it is her life, and it’s my life, too, now. I think Westerners typically feel totally divorced from any sort of real traditions, living in a world of billboards and pepsi cans, and so to suddenly be thrust into this very ancient culture, which seems to me now so similar to the pre-Christian civilizations of Europe, with their rites and ancestral sacrifices, was really quite an honor, one of many signs that I’ve been accepted into the family despite my foreignness, and further evidence that my new parents-in-law, who apparently have been so busy their whole lives that they’ve never even had a chance to explore their own country, live in a very different world from mine, one which is connected much more solidly to the pre-industrial past, which only ended about six or seven decades ago here in Korea.

They later explained to me that in the cold weather and the business of their lives they didn’t have time to prepare a proper offering to their parents, but Koreans do celebrate a major festival once a year called Chuseok, or Thanksgiving, where the women (and only the women) prepare enormous amounts of food for the spirits of their ancestors. Korean shamans can also be found, if you look carefully, even in a big city like Busan, clanging their bronze gongs and mumbling prayers and folk tunes before a table crowded with platters of fruit, rites which I think would not have seemed so strange to ancient Greeks or Egyptians—at least not so strange as old men and women handing out plastic pamphlets detailing the reasons why God loves us.

And so in a small, nearly nameless town near Gyeongju, I bowed my head to show my respect to the people who helped make my wife, and I tried to introduce myself to them as best as I could, whether or not they were actually capable of hearing my thoughts. After all, who knows?

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The Korean Shuffle

A relaxing afternoon in Namsanjeong, Busan.

The Koreans are a peculiar people (while Mainers are legendary for how normal they are (famous even as far away as the fabled boulevards of Pyongyang, where people often speak of Maine as a proverbial paradise of normalcy; Kim Jong-Il himself has often said that the best workers who stick to the rules are “as normal as Mainers”, while a humdrum day consisting of only a few executions is “as normal as a day in Maine.”)), and when you arrive in Korea, in Hanguk, in Choseon, in Goryeo, you’ll see many instances of people dancing in the streets.

These aren’t the Bollywood spectacles of burning Saris that you’ll find writhing over your shoulder in the land of Ashoka, rather, the natives in Korea will often initiate a celebration ceremony to commemorate the opening of a new market where fresh, local produce may be procured for familial consumption. The tribe will initiate the market by placing two nubile maidens at the front entrance, but only after they’ve dressed in a traditional Korean outfit consisting of short blue skirts and white (but tastefully soiled) moonboots. This ancient dress, pregnant with tradition and fraught with meaning, is then gyrated in a deeply fulfilling manner over the pale thin legs of the Korean maidens, who also rotate their arms, one over the other, so blurrily that you won’t be able to tell if the dancers are moving in sync.

This dance, symbolizing the Wheel of Time, usually lasts for eight hours a day, five days a week, and is accompanied by traditional Korean music, a wholly autochthonous concoction of throbbing synthesizers and caterwauling autotuners, all of which were invented in Korea at the time of Sejong the Great, who was an avid partaker of traditional Korean karaoke, or noraebang. The maidens are highly-respected members of society and the performance before their elders, who often stare and cross their arms before the dancers for hours at a time, will earn them a great deal of honor in Korean society. Once the market begins to turn a profit, which is not at all uncommon in Korea (where the success rate of small businesses is a staggering 150%, largely thanks to the auspicious contortions of young Korean beauties), the maidens are allowed to retire into mother- and eventual ajuma-hood. A victory present usually consists of hair curlers.

But there is also another dance here that one may witness at any moment on the phlegm-slick tar of South Korea (loogies being used to assist in the solidification process of freshly-paved avenues). Some outsiders have called it The Korean Shuffle. It’s a simple affair that one can easily practice at home: it involves walking in a straight line (unless you are walking toward someone, in which case you should immediately stare at the person in question and walk as fast as you can, straight at them, not blinking, stepping side to side as you come within striking distance) and then running at a speed only marginally faster than your walk, making sure to keep your arms in your pockets or swaying straight at your side. You must endeavor to look as embarrassed and even ashamed as possible as you run. Then, after running, or shuffling, for about twenty feet, you should resume your walk in a straight line, as though nothing had happened. Once you catch your breath, or realize that you are still late for work at your cell phone store and that your position has not really improved, you must run again, and repeat the process until you arrive at your destination.

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