Chuseok, 2004

Ilsan Lake Park – Photo by Seok Hwan Jeong under Creative Commons

The platform was quiet after Will and I stepped off the train to transfer. We were far out in the suburbs of Seoul, where the metro lines run above ground, and the moon shone brightly in the sky like a pale lantern. I stood there in my t-shirt with my hoodie hanging over my shoulder, enjoying the cool air after a long, wet summer. Those were the first breaths of autumn air I had taken in Korea.

It was the day before Chuseok, a holiday celebrating the harvest, and Will had generously invited me to spend it with his family. He was my roommate at the international dormitory where I was staying. A Southern Californian who had come to Korea to reconnect with his own language and culture, it would be a rare occasion for him as well.

Will’s uncle picked us up near the end of the line in Incheon. He was eminently friendly but had a tired look about him — above his buoyant smile, his eyes and cheeks looked heavy. Will called him halaboji, “grandfather,” because he was more that kind of figure. Together, we ate a simple meal of rice, soup and saengson-jeon (egg-battered fish) in anticipation of the feast we would have the next day. Then we went for a few turns in a nearby park. Night had fully fallen, but as was so often the case after dark in Korea, the place was alive with people.

Early the next morning we carved a wide route around Seoul on the sunny highway. The road was empty; everyone else who was traveling for the holiday had likely already arrived where they intended to be. Will’s family were gathering at one their relative’s homes in Ilsan, just northwest of the capital. There were about a dozen people across several generations, and all of them welcomed us warmly.

Inside the apartment there was a large folding screen and low tables upon which carefully sliced fruit and other offerings were stacked. Pictures of family members who had passed were set up on the table as well. I would come to learn that on almost all holidays, Koreans take time to honor their elders, both living and dead.

Will’s family was Catholic and so this ceremony, I was told, was somewhat non-traditional: we sang hymns before bowing deeply, foreheads touching the floor, and wordlessly paying tribute. Then the family did something I did not expect. In silence, all of us shuffled out of the room, and shut the door. “This is when their spirits eat,” one of Will’s aunts said to me in a near whisper out in the hallway.

About a minute or so passed before we re-entered the apartment and began to feast for ourselves. I suspended my disbelief and wondered whether the food had been in any part altered by the presence of spirits. Perhaps an apple slice would have a nibble taken out of it, a shot glass of soju would be half-full?

It was barely 10 o’clock but the spread was huge — fish, kalbi, bulgogi, side dishes of every variety. One of Will’s younger cousins twisted open a 2 liter bottle of beer and began to pass glasses around. By noon, Will and I began to insist we could eat no more. “But that’s only the first round!” one of his aunts said, laughing cheerfully.

Before attempting more over-nourishment, we all piled into a couple cars and drove to Lake Park, a large, man-made recreational space in the middle of Ilsan. Will, his cousins and I rented bikes and pedaled through the crisp air. I felt my heart beat faster, shaking off the laziness of the morning. We cruised and laughed, racing against each other only half seriously.

It’s been eight years since that first Chuseok, and I have never seen any of Will’s relatives since. Will and I, once on opposite sides of a 200 square foot room, now live on opposite coasts. But on that slow and simple autumn day, we all shared a few moments that I will carry for years still.

Chuseok (추석) was Sunday. Read more about the holiday at Wikipedia.