Monday, December 08, 2014
I have two an a half weeks left, which is no time at all. I had my first weekend where I didn't work and instead did only family business. Some of that included visiting another cousin's house and seeing her kids, or going to the sauna, or celebrating my uncle's birthday, or having lunch with more family after going to church (at least this church has a lot of music. The sermon is the worst because I can't understand all of the vocab, so even if they wanted to convert me, it's a lost cause). We drove by the national library on the way home and I saw a big sign for a book art show, but when I looked it up just now, it closed on Sunday! SO SAD. I wish exhibits here were longer than one or two weeks.
I mentioned attending the jesa for my aunt's late mother last week. It's an ancestral rite that happens the night before the day that an ancestor died, traditionally at midnight, but now pushed back a little because it's hard on everyone to stay up that late and then eat all the food. I didn't take pictures because that's rude but I felt grateful to have been included, even though I'm not a blood relation (this is my aunt by marriage). It was so nice to see another big extended Korean family that was not my own, and to see a different ancestral ritual. I'm used to the chudoshik in my Protestant Korean family.
The idea is similar: family comes together to remember the deceased, and it takes at least all day or longer to prepare the food. The jesa is more elaborate because of all the motions you go through to ensure that the spirits of the dead are satisfied: you leave the doors of the home open so they can enter, and you offer food and drink to the spirits one or two or a few people at a time (children of the deceased, siblings, grandchildren, etc.). Utensils are placed in or near food for the spirits to consume and a piece of everything is taken at the end before the rest is served to everyone. There is a prayer of sorts written on paper that is later set on fire (so dramatic! And beautiful in the metal bowl as it flames into ashes). Lots of knee-bent prostration throughout, and pretty much all five senses in play, whether drinking the liquor, the noise of chopsticks banged inside a bowl to summon the spirits, the incense, and the up and down as you bring your hands together and then to the floor. All the lights turned off at one point while the entire family faces away from the offering table, set in front of a folding screen.
It was touching to witness and especially to see how the remaining family paid their respects individually. Thankfully, my cousin whispered explanations to me the whole time (and made sure I was down when I needed to be and facing the right direction, that kind of thing). Traditionally, only the men do this, but most families now include everyone, though the women always prepared the food. Which, in this case, was delicious! There were enough ritual platters to offer at least twenty different dishes including fruit and rice cake. The eldest son's home is in charge of this ritual for all of the ancestors, which repeats so many times in a given year (because everyone has parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.) that women did not want to marry a first-born male. The responsibility and burden is no small matter.
I lost a bunch of sleep and have suffered on and off from strange symptoms like chest cramps (or is it tightness? Hard to explain, but highly disconcerting) over things that I can't detail here. Suffice it to say, I felt betrayed and hurt, and disappointed by my own mistakes—in several interactions with different people. I have to hope that I wise up each time, though I don't have much hope for men keeping their hands to themselves. I saw my cardiologist cousin for lunch today as well as my sister's filmmaker friend and retold my troubles to them. Usually, I get angry in the retelling, but today it was actually good to tell the stories and laugh and laugh with these two men, separately. Their responses helped model the way I could go forward, with a lighter touch. If anything, this trip has made it abundantly clear that I have to re-frame the entire way that I value and see myself in the world—a task I had been avoiding, but which must happen. Which reminds me that I've been tasked with learning how to frame the Korean way. Literally! This might not happen, but it would be grand if I could at least learn the basics.
The good news is that I can stay in Seoul until the hanji seminar next week! So, no more trips out of town until we visit a paper mill I've wanted to see for years and pick up more screens and frames for hanji making back home. I won't have to coordinate that travel, so it will be easy to simply ride with the group. I do love to sleep on these buses, but will instead or catch up with friends and colleagues—people are coming from France, the UK, Japan, the US, China ... I've also overloaded my plate with another article to write, at least three apps to submit in the next two weeks, and all those books from Japan to ship once they arrive. I'm still weaving a piece that I am determined to finish before I leave! There are so many other details that are slipping through my fingers (I decided not to write everything down, just like I take less pictures than I used to), but what sticks is still more than enough to fill my days and nights.