A Day to Honor Ancestors

It was half past six am when my dad called me. I was just getting out of the shower and had half a mind to take a nap when my phone rang. I maneuvered my way to the nightstand to answer the call. I assured him that I was awake and had been for a few minutes, he reminded me to meet him in an hour and hung up.

The subway ride seemed to take forever but try as I did I couldn’t sleep longer than a few minutes before the sounds of the train would wake me again. After I met with my father, it was another one hour ride to meet his cousin in a small city south of Seoul on the No. 1 Line (I hate the No. 1 Line). A short wait after arrival, quick introductions and we were on our way. My father’s cousin was one of the youngest of his generation. His daughters (two of them) were both older than me (youngest by only  a few months) and would have been welcome company on this trip had they come.

It was the beginning of a four hour trip out into the country. We met with another of my father’s cousins, the eldest son of the elder house but not the eldest of his generation.  Still this cousin was old and he looked it. As the eldest son of the elder house, the responsibility of the family home came under his responsibility. His skin was a sort of wrinkled brown, what I picture potato skins to look like after you’ve baked one in an oven.

It was about half an hour into the next leg of the trip when I realized my mistake far too late. Of the three elders in the car, none had brought their daughters or sons (my cousins) along fortheride. It was another two hours of making a few stops to pick up fruit, plates, cups, sickles and little shovels. My fears were made real when we finally arrived and I met my two uncles along with three four more of my father’s cousins and one of his aunts. I paused with the slim realization that I was the only one of my generation at this… ‘event’.

I leaned back in the car and thought of when I was four and my parents dressed me up in the ceremonial New Year’s outfit. Their friends had dressed their youngest children in ceremonial outfits for presentation. So there we were in colors brighter than any gift wrapping, sitting around uncomfortably while people cooed and made baby noises at us. It wasn’t the most fun I’d ever had but it was one of the few instances where I’d been involved in something both traditional and cultural. Now that I’m in Korea, it’s almost impossible for me to ignore the culture and traditions especially because they’ve gone from ridiculous anecdotes that my parents used to tell me, to responsibilities that I’ve had to shoulder.

When we arrived it was like that New Year’s all over again. We were the last car to arrive since we had made the most stops along the way to pick up supplies. My father’s older and younger brother, the younger son of the elder family and three brothers of the middle family along with their mother, my father’s aunt were there waiting. Honestly with the exception of the three brothers, it seemed like we were at an outing for a senior citizen’s home. Everyone shook my hand or gave me a hug and thanked me for coming.

Tradition calls for an offering of cold foods like fruits and vegetables along with old staples like dried fish to be offered up to our ancestors. We set eleven places for each of the members of our family and poured them drinks. Then, as traditions calls, we walk away for a few minutes and allow the spirits of our grandparents and their grandparents to eat. The whole get together is treated more like a social outing rather than a solemn ceremony. At one point, one of my father’s cousins made a joke. When he noticed me with a blank expression on my face he tried to explain it to me in Konglish,

“(You know) paper bag? (This uncle) paper bag, drink. (Alcohol, but in a) paper bag. Everyone knew.”

We returned to the table which hadn’t been disturbed during our short break. I asked my rather if he’d ever returned to an offering to find like a bite taken out of an apple. He told me to stop being a smart-ass and that it was time to get to work. I was handed a sickle and told to clear away some of the weeds. Looking back now, I don’t really know if I was being a smart-ass or if I was really curious as to whether or not he’d ever witnessed a ghost meal.

I went to work with the sickle while my uncles and relatives went to work with shovels and other assorted toolery (not a real word). It was sort of like playing “Harvest Moon” on the Super Nintendo, except not. I kept on getting whipped in the arm with acacia branches which had grown over the last autumn and other thorny messes. Other areas were punctuated with laughter and jokes, my area was punctuated by cursing and wild threats against the plant life. In the end I used the sickle like an axe and simply cut my way through the underbrush.

It was about thirty minutes into my new experience as a wilderness explorer when my uncle (the eldest of the generation but not of the elder house) called for a pause. It was nearing 2 o’ clock and the sun was taking its toll of my poor aged relatives. We chopped and sliced for another fifteen minutes before the grounds were deemed acceptable.

A curious thing about Korean culture is the lack of pictures. My father loved his camera and used to enter contests and take photographs of my brother and I until, well, until he couldn’t. But there are no pictures of his childhood and there are barely any of his college years (mayhaps because he was too busy fighting dinosaurs). Even at the family functions that I’ve been to, I’m usually the only one with a camera. Only recently has one of my younger cousins finally picked up a DSLR. In any case I needed to commemorate this event. I called all my relatives together for a photo and was surprised at the response. Groans and moans coming from these old men were unexpected, a few voluntarily walked towards me but the rest suddenly turned into a kindergarten class. It was a simple click and we were done. Of course, when one of my father’s cousins volunteered to take another photo with me in it, I was all groans so maybe I should shut up.

Yep, I’ll shut up.


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