October 3, 2012 by travelinggrits
The Chuseok holiday brought me in touch with many traditions of the Korean household. I spent the day before helping my host mother prepare the food. This initially meant that I served as a loyal taste-tester for each batch, but after repeated offers to help, my host mother finally waved me over to the stove.
At first, she hovered over me as I flipped the dishes sizzling in oil, but eventually she seemed satisfied with my ability to wield kitchen utensils with confidence and left me in peace while she continued her housework. I fried fish cakes, fish filets, jijim, and pajeon (which always reminds me of my mom’s zucchini fritters for some reason) until my face had collected a thin veil of oil from leaning over the pan. My host mother was grateful for the assistance—even my older host sister in college has never prepared some of these foods. Today, I am not tired because of your help—thank you, she said.
On Chuseok morning, I took a walk around the neighborhood. The streets were quiet; there was no chatter of students on their way to school. Cars were tightly parked along both sides of the road, evidence of relatives who had traveled far and wide to visit families living here.
My host father’s younger brother and his family arrived late morning. The women plated stacks of the food prepared the day before as well as fruit and steamed vegetables, and my host father, dressed in a casual version of the traditional Korean hanbok, arranged the food on a long, low table set in the living room with a folding screen behind it. My host father then led a series of rituals in memory of his parents and grandparents. The ceremony involved pouring tea into cups for the honored guests, moving pairs of chopsticks around from plate to plate and serving bowls of rice, broken by intermittent bowing. I approached the ceremony with caution out of respect for the tradition, but the family welcomed my participation, even encouraging me to snap pictures throughout. The host father and his brother, all of the children and I took part in the bowing, although I said my own prayers of thanks rather than speaking to the family’s ancestors.
After the ceremony was completed, the table was cleared and reset with food for the family. We enjoyed the fruits of my labor from the day before, as well as stew and bibimbap. The afternoon passed with quiet conversation, watching TV and playing card games with the host sisters and their cousin. Later that evening, we went to my host mother’s house to share a meal with her side of the family and an after-dinner walk on a trail nearby.
The next day, I headed to Andong to check out the mask dance festival. I had read about this festival even before my arrival in Korea, and I was excited about this unique celebration of Korean arts. My family had given me the go-ahead to travel the evening before, so I was not sure if a ticket would be available last-minute on such a busy holiday weekend. But I was in luck—I was able to purchase a ticket on the first bus out in the morning.
My guide for the day was fellow Fulbrighter Erica, whose host father, coincidentally, was one of the main coordinators for the festival. Andong was crawling with people, so it took us quite some time to maneuver to the Andong Hahoe Village, one of the much-anticipated locations on my UNESCO World Heritage site list. During the Joseon dynasty, the village was home to the Ryu family, an upper-class clan descended from a prominent Confucian scholar. The traditional tiled-roof and thatched-roof houses, well preserved since their construction in the 1500s, have since served as the setting of many historical Korean movies and TV dramas. “Hahoe” (pronounced ha-hway) means “circled by water;” the village, nestled in a gentle curve of the Nakdong River, is often compared to a floating lotus flower. At the heart of the village is a 600-year-old tree; here, visitors can write dreams and wishes on slips of paper and tie them onto a rope circling the tree.
The village itself was a dream of a past lifestyle. Wandering the winding, stone-paved streets of the village was like a brief retreat from modern society. The village welcomes visitors seeking an escape; many of the houses can be rented out for a traditional homestay. Ironically, this desire for refuge from urban life has left subtle anachronisms—a car parked outside one house, a gas pipeline installed outside another.
While at the village, we watched part of a performance of the infamous Andong traditional mask dance. The performance fused more drama with dance than I expected, and although the nuances of the dialogue were lost on me, I understood the main character’s escapades in each scene, from chasing and butchering a cow to wooing a lady. Reading more about the dance here afterwards gave me a greater appreciation for what I saw and the dance’s role in village life.
Erica and I returned to the festival site in downtown Andong, and we enjoyed some delicious mackerel, a local specialty. I could have spent much longer watching mask dances from other areas of the world—and Erica’s host family insisted I stay the night—but I had already bought a ticket home. Once I arrived at the Gumi bus station, I hopped on a downtown bus to take me back to my neighborhood. After the day’s travels, I was feeling pleased with my ability to maneuver transportation from city to city.
After a few stops too many, however, I had the hunch that I was on the wrong bus. I did not want to get off, however, because I felt that trying to get myself back from an unfamiliar stop would be even worse. I resolved to ride the bus back to the stop I needed—the route was a loop, right?
Come to find out, the route of this particular bus took a straight path to the nearest town, Waegwan, and back. By the time I arrived in Waegwan, I was the lone passenger. The bus cruised into the Waegwan bus station—and then the bus driver looked back and realized that I had asked about the Shinpyeong stop when I boarded, so I had obviously missed it. He drew me a map and explained where I should have gotten off, but I had figured this out already. I asked if I should take a train back to Gumi, but he insisted I stay on the bus and just ride it back into Gumi on the next round. He apologized multiple times, but I insisted that it was my mistake. He then abruptly disembarked the bus, and I worried that he was annoyed with me. But within a few minutes he returned with two Vitamin bottles, and we shared them over simple conversation. Surprisingly, I was calm throughout this. Perhaps I had the sense that “all roads lead to home,” or maybe my pleasant day in Andong had soothed me beyond the ability to become anxious.
When I arrived at my stop about 40 minutes later, my host mother and sisters were waiting. I worried that they would be angry, but I gave them a sheepish grin and they all erupted into laughter. Once home, I presented them with a souvenir from the festival: red bean pastries in the shape of the Andong masks. My host family dug into the snack immediately, and they even entertained themselves by scrunching up their faces in imitation of the mask expressions.
My roundabout ride has quickly become a funny story to share with friends and family—just one of the many scenes of this dramatic dance I’m living out in Korea.