Friday, February 08, 2008 Korea (South) South Korea

The Year of the Rat

Lunar New Year rituals [Enlarge]

Yesterday was Seolnal (Lunar New Year), and the oriental world entered the Year of the Rat. Coming round every twelve years, a year of the rat is, apparently, a time of hard work, activity, and renewal. So 2008 is going to be a good year to begin a new job, get married, launch a product or make a fresh start. But for us, the best bit about lunar new year was that we got three days holiday! We decided to celebrate by taking a friend up on her offer of spending a traditional Korean new year with her and her family in the countryside.

We took a train from Cheongnyangni, in the north of Seoul. It was an evening departure and the whole journey was in the dark, so sadly we didn't see anything of Korea on the way. Our friend Misun picked us up in Punggi, her ancestral home town and the place where her grandparents still live. After a comfortable night in the Punggi Hotel, we got all dressed up for new year's day, including a borrowed traditional hanbok for Isla, and Misun's mum picked us up.

As we drove out of town, we got our first real sight of rural Korea. We were in a flat valley surrounded by steep tree-clad mountains. It was a cold day, but we received a warm welcome at the family home. At least twenty people had already gathered when we arrived. Misun told us that her grandfather was away, visiting his elder brother's house. He would return to his own home soon and then the new year rites would begin. The tradition which almost everyone follows at lunar new year is to return to their home town, to the home of the oldest male relative on the father's side, to pay their respects to the senior members of the family, and to their ancestors. This is a Confucian tradition, so whatever the family's religion (whether Christian, Buddhist or atheist), they still tend to observe these rituals.

Wearing traditional Korean hanbok [Enlarge]

The family living room had been converted into an ancestral shrine: a low table was set up against the back wall, and a screen filled with traditional Chinese calligraphy stood behind. The women began bringing plate after plate of food from the kitchen. The food was set out on the table in a very particular and symbolic order—soju at the back, then beef, chicken and fish, ddeok (glutinous rice cakes), eggs, puffed rice cakes, apples, korean pears and dried persimmons. Then the women disappeared again and the most senior men in the family went through a complicated bowing ritual to the food and lit incense. The sombre atmosphere in the living room contrasted with the chatter and laughter we could hear coming from the kitchen. The women in the kitchen were not actually related to each other—this was the house of the male line and they had all married into the family. We all stood back from the shrine, Westerners and Koreans making awkward conversation via the translation services of Misun, who, since her father has passed away and her brother was back in Seoul, was representing her father at the ceremony. As we wondered what was going to happen next, Misun told us that we were giving the ancestors a chance to enjoy the food. Finally, we were allowed to sit down and enjoy the feast! We were honoured with a privileged position at the main table next to Grandfather, and after we had started eating the women came in and joined us.

Apart from an old armchair placed in the kitchen, the house was devoid of furniture. It was a single storey house with very low doors. The whole front of the house was a long glass verandah and the rooms opened off this towards the back of the house. They didn't have windows, and the bedroom had a tiny doorway through which you almost had to crawl. This design is great for regulating the temperature through the year. Many Koreans sleep on mats on the floor, which are put away in the cupboards every day. They also sit on the floor to eat and watch TV.

At times like this Glenn wishes that he was able to sit on the floor like a Korean. But he isn't Korean, and he can't sit on the floor. Trying to sit cross-legged and eat from a low table for more than five minutes is impossible. With extreme pins and needles in his legs, he kept making excuses to stand up and Grandmother kept shooing him back down telling him to make himself comfortable! She really had no idea that he was trying to do just that. It's a shame that this is one cultural gap that is seemingly impossible to bridge. Isla is OK on the floor: maybe she was Korean in a past life.

For the duration of the meal, every kind of Korean food kept appearing from the kitchen in never-ending production line. Never knowing how much more would actually be coming, we were unable to pace ourselves and very soon we were completely full. The food was excellent and we did our best, but as always, we hardly made a dent in it. The only thing we really didn't like was the blanched octopus tentacles. Imagine eating a hard pencil eraser covered with suckers.

After lunch, we were invited to visit the family's tombs. This is another traditional part of the new year rites. Outside town, on the side of a steep hill we clambered down through the snow and mud to stand beside a large grass mound. Standing with our backs to each tomb we could look out over the valley, and the new highway that cuts through it. Tombs are always sited in the most auspicious place possible, which for Confucians means having a hill behind and a river or stream in front. The dead ancestors were given soju, apples and oranges and after some more bowing we left them.

The New Year's rituals complete, we could now relax. We played the traditional Korean New Year's board game Yunnori with Misun's younger cousins, who all wanted to practice their English with some real foreigners. Then we drove up to Sobaek mountain with Misun and her mum for a walk. Up here there was plenty of snow and ice on the ground, and with a strong February sun melting it in places, it was very slippery. Misun's mum turned out to be very fond of sliding down slopes on her bum. Misun liked it too, but she wasn't such a natural. The whole atmosphere of the day was very Christmassy: too much food, playing board games, a family walk in the country. We were so lucky to get a look at real Korean life.

Map of Days 439-440

Days 439-440
Seoul to Yeongju

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

1 Comment:

metaphysical said...

On February 7, 2008 the Year of the Earth Rat begins as the year of the Fire Pig comes to an end. The Pig is the last sign in the Chinese Zodiac and the Rat is the first sign. Therefore we are now at the end of one 12 year Chinese Zodiac cycle and the beginning of another one. If you are looking for closure, now is the time in the last few days of the year of the Fire Pig. If you are looking for a new beginning, a fresh start approaches with the year of the Earth Rat.

After two Fire years in a row, life may seem calmer during this Earth year. That could be deceptive, however, as the Rat never stops moving, especially when it comes to mental activity.

According to the popular legend, the Rat was the first to arrive to a dinner hosted by Buddha (but only after hitching a ride on Ox’s back and then jumping over the finish line) so this is why the Rat is the first sign of the Chinese zodiac. It signifies new beginnings. 2008 is therefore an appropriate time to commence new ventures, including new ideas, directions, and ways of doing things. There will be ample time to see your projects through and opportunities for you to achieve success. However, keep in mind that your actions may have long terms effects, so be wise with your decisions.