When I moved to Seoul for an English teaching contract last fall, I remember how uneasy I felt with what little I knew of Korean culture. My friend Kate also moved here to teach. Six months before she had her one-way ticket, she learned to read Hangul and construct a gorgeous and well-fermented kimchi. When I stepped on the plane, I didn’t know the Korean word for ‘thank you’. Up until now, I’d been wise to keep that a secret. I wasn’t much aware of the food, either, and usually this is the starting point whenever I am preparing to visit a new place. I knew about galbi and mandoo, but beyond that, Korean food held the same obscurity as the language.
I thought that a move over six thousand miles from home might feel like learning to walk again. To my surprise, the adjustment period was short, and before I knew it, I was happy to realize my reality was far kinder than my imagination.
I did not expect that I would start dating someone so soon after I arrived, either. I thought that if I did meet someone while living six thousand miles from home, it would never go past casual. Least of all did I expect to have the chance to witness one of the most intimate holiday celebrations of the year with his family.
It was the third time we met when he brought up the idea. He mentioned it easily, as if he were a new friend back home inviting me to his family’s table for dinner on a Tuesday. Time passed, we started to see each other more often, and Lunar New Year crept closer. He asked me again if I would come. I still wanted to, but not with the same impulsive curiosity I’d had initially. Things were suddenly different. I was falling in love with him.
I decided to ask for advice.
My boss had been suggesting appropriate host gift ideas for a week after I told her I was going to be a guest for a friend’s celebration. She became wholly disenchanted with the idea once I told her that I was actually dating the friend who had invited me. “You are not married, or planning to be married, and so you are not family. It would be strange.” And with that, she confirmed my apprehension. I trusted his motive was just as he said—to give me the rare opportunity to see something special, but I was worried about what his family might think. I didn’t want to put either of us in a position that could be misinterpreted.
My friend, Young-joo had a different outlook. She understood my reservations, but she thought his family might be more open-minded than that. Maybe they were simply happy to show me a part of Korean culture. Maybe, I thought, this had nothing to do with me..
It was a little after 5 a.m. when we started the drive to his cousin’s house. As most of the city was still cloaked in pre-dawn darkness, we drove almost an hour to his cousin’s house in Hongeun-dong.
We walked up a narrow street between rows of two-story houses set snugly against each other, and he turned to me and said, “This is the street I grew up on, and that over there—that was where we lived.” The neighborhood hadn’t changed much, he told me. A strip of the same three general stores ran the length of half a block. His elementary school had the same sandy playground in front of the entrance. But the house he spent the first several years of his life was gone, torn down and rebuilt wider and higher.
“You are not married, or planning to be married, and so you are not family. It would be strange.” And with that, my boss confirmed my apprehension.
“This is it.” At that moment, I could feel my heartbeat in my toes. We walked inside, and I smelled the tang of garlic and kimchi mixed with the piney breath of incense drifting from another room. Cousins, aunts, uncles, his father and grandmother emerged from upstairs, from behind closed doors, and in from outside. The kitchen filled quickly, and one by one, I met his family. He didn’t introduce them by name, but by order of birth. Beyond the life in the kitchen, I caught a glimpse of the dining room, and of a long, low burnished wood table set against one wall. It was covered in food and set with purpose. It looked like it had been plucked from a museum. Simple soup and rice were nearest to a framed photo of his grandfather, the man to be honored for the day. Fish, meat, and jeon were arranged from left to right. Salted vegetables were piled high in bowls at the center. At the front of the table, softball-sized pears, apples, and persimmons with shiny skins were partially peeled and arranged on plates next to crisp and sticky rice candy. His grandfather’s favorite plate of whole dried pollack looked like a relic itself, sitting in the same spot it had every year since 1989, the year after he died. The mood of the room felt sacred, in a sort of celebratory and reverent way.
I learned that his aunt, Gil-ja, spent two full days prepping all of the food. As the wife of the oldest brother in the family, she has inherited the main responsibility of cooking each year. The rest of the women in the family help, but for over 45 years, she has been the head of the effort. We were not at Gil-ja’s house, but I could sense that for the entirety of this day, we were in her kitchen.
Before breakfast, the oldest generation of men stood facing the table and their father’s photograph. One uncle held an empty drinking glass over the bowl of incense. Another uncle poured jeongjong, a rice wine, into the glass and circled it around the incense three times before he set it next to the bowl of rice. He took a pair of chopsticks and tapped them lightly against the table three times before laying them across the edge of a different bowl. They bowed to him, and then the next two generations traded places and did the same. The youngest generation finished, and the room was left empty for a while.
The three generations rotated in and out of the room to bow again, this time serving him tteokguk, a soup traditionally served during the Lunar New Year.
The women cleared the table, and we sat in the same room over hot bowls of the soup. It was slightly thick and gently salted, with brisket and eggs cooked two ways: coddled and subtly present throughout the bowl and fried and sliced into strips that sat in a mound on top. A generous number of oval-shaped rice cakes bobbed around each bowl. I couldn’t get enough of that rice cake, and I can’t tell you why, exactly. On its own, tteok is pretty flavorless, but the texture is incredibly addictive.
The grandmother touched my knee and brought her face close to mine. She gazed at me, her eyes milky with cataracts. “You’re not Korean,” she said with a low soft chuckle. “Where are you from?”
Once you’ve finished a bowl of this soup, Koreans believe you’ve aged one year. I’m in the final stretch of my twenties, and the thought of turning thirty just as I’m getting comfortable here does not overly thrill me. But the thought of a second bowl of tteokguk? At that moment, age was nothing but a number.
After breakfast, we drove to a town called Paju where his grandfather was buried. His headstone was etched with names of his surviving family, grandchildren included. That morning, there was a generation of people who weren’t yet born when he died. His aunt stirred instant coffee into hot water, and we drank it from paper cups to keep warm. The men bowed again and poured jeongjong on his grave. This was an important part of the process that was never skipped no matter the weather conditions in the middle of January. I admired their dedication for more than just that. No matter how busy their lives had become, they still managed to come together this time each year to honor tradition and lineage. In doing so, they were setting an example for the younger generations to follow.
When we returned to the house, it was time to eat again. Uncooked fish and radish bathed in a fiery chili sauce, his aunts’ kimchi, and big metal bowls of yubu jumeoni tang, another annual soup, were spread across the table. We ladled in at the signal of the eldest uncle. The soup looked full of small yellow presents tied together with green ribbon. Those presents turned out to be pillows of thin, fried tofu wrapped around a filling of minced vegetables and glass noodles, tied at the top with grass-colored leeks. After a minute, Gil-ja came out of nowhere and took the chopsticks from my hands. She slashed the chopsticks across the belly of a pillow in one skilled movement, showing me how to let the filling spill out and soak with the broth. She was keeping an eye on me, and I liked it.
His grandmother sat at the head of the table. I sat at the opposite end. Well into her nineties, she stood around five feet tall. Alzheimer’s kept her from recognizing everyone in her family except for the son she saw everyday. When she walked into the dining room at the beginning of the day, she stopped short in front of the table. “Who is that?” she asked, pointing to the picture of her late husband. She didn’t forget how to drink soju, however, and how to joke about it, too. When asked if she wanted a third refill, she chirped with a smirk, “Oh, I thought this was water.” Secretly, I wanted to sit next to her.
After lunch, the men stayed in the dining room, emptying bottles of makgeolli and soju. His grandmother retreated to her bedroom for a nap, while one of the uncles spread out in the middle of the dining room floor and settled into an open-mouthed, uninhibited snore. We sat down in the kitchen. Gil-ja pulled up a small table, a bowl of fruit, and four small forks and began to take a knife to each piece, pulling the peel toward her thumb in one long curl. My own grandmother’s face flashed across my mind. She used to peel apples the same way.
Aunts gathered on the floor near us around a basket the size of an industrial sink and uncovered layers of pajeon, pancakes with pork, onion, cabbage, green soy bean, garlic, and sesame, and sanjuk, skewers of electric pink crabstick, mushroom, and scallion and started grilling everything on a hot plate next to fat slabs of firm tofu. Wherever we were, whatever time of day, we were surrounded by beautiful, ancestral, handmade food.
Soon his grandmother woke up from her nap. She shuffled into the kitchen and chose the empty spot to my left. After a minute, she realized something was not quite right. I wondered how long it would take. She touched my knee and brought her face close to mine. She gazed at me, her eyes milky with cataracts. “You’re not Korean,” she said with a low soft chuckle. “Where are you from?” He translated for her, and then for me. She nodded, taking a bite of pajeon from one of her daughters. She swallowed, looked me in the eye again, and said, “I know you’re not Korean. But are you Chinese?” Another bite of pajeon as she processed my answer. And then, “No, I don’t think you are Korean. Your husband is very handsome. Wherever you go, wherever you are, Koreans are the best.” She had a style that was undisguised, and she’d held onto it even when most of her memory had slipped away.
We had the same exchange around 12 more times over the next half hour. She seemed content with the fact that I was Chinese and married to the handsome Korean on my right. I was happy that we communicated even though I didn’t speak her language. I was grateful for her, for him, and for the rest of his family who held steadily to their traditions year after year. They chose to open their doors and share a part of it with me that day, which I came to realize was the hardest part. I simply had to walk through them.