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?