Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Chuseok Celebration!

The last week here in Korea has been very exciting- and (as always) busy, busy, busy! We only had 3 days of school last week because it was a big holiday weekend- Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving. Koreans travel to their hometowns, or the towns of their ancestors, to celebrate with their families and make lots of traditional foods. I had the privilege of accompanying Christine Teacher on a visit to her uncle and aunt's home in Jeonju for our long weekend vacation. Her uncle (Bob) is married to a Korean woman (Shina), and although they normally reside in the US, they have been in Korea for the year while her uncle fulfills a Fulbright position at a local Korean university. They are the most welcoming and hospitable people! They were so excited to have us (Christine, Shauna Teacher, and myself) visit them and to share more about Korean culture with us.

We traveled about 2 hours by bus to Jeonju city, which is south of Suji. This region (SW) of Korea is said to have the best food in all the country, because it has the most arable land for farming (although it is still fairly mountainous, it is flatter than the rest of the country). We knew that it is supposed to be famous for its Bibimbap, the mixed rice dish that we all LOVE- so of course we had to sample the local cuisine! We tried the dolsot bibimbap, which is served in a big, burning hot stone pot. You mix up the ingredients (rice, dried seaweed strips, all kinds of mushrooms, shredded carrot, shredded radish, thin beef strips, bean sprouts, chili paste, etc) with the raw egg on top, and the heat from the pot cooks the egg inside the bowl. We were also served about 15 different side dishes with our lunch meal of dolsot bibimbap- which isn't unusual to see in Korea! After a meal out, your table is completely littered with dozens of dishes. Aside from the kimchi (which you can bet will always accompany your meal), we sampled tiny egg pancakes with green onion, all sorts of pickled and fermented radishes, tiny dried anchovies (this time, I was brave enough to try them- even though they still had eyes on them), and acorn jelly cubes. Part of the fun of eating out here is just seeing what different side dishes they'll bring you- and this meal was no exception- anchovies and acorn jelly??!

I hate to keep rambling on about food in this post, but our meals really turned out to be an important (and time-consuming) part of the holiday weekend! Shauna, Christine, and I thought it was okay to rationalize that we had to eat a lot anyway, since it was technically "Thanksgiving" weekend :) And our Chuseok celebration on Saturday turned out to be centered around a traditional meal, just like our Thanksgiving at home. Shina invited us to spend the day in Gwanju (a city about 1.5 hours away) with her mother, siblings, and their families. We were so excited, knowing that we'd have a great experience in store, but also a bit nervous at what sort of food they'd serve...and how to be polite by eating it all, no matter how strange! Koreans love to eat a lot, and eat often...and one of their favorite phrases is something like, "eat more! Eat more!" Also, there was that small problem of the language barrier to think about...

The experience turned out to be so amazing- we had the best time in Gwanju and were just on Cloud Nine by the end of the night!! We were so taken back with the friendliness, warmth, and genuity of Shina and her family- they welcomed us into their home by literally jumping up and down and shouting "Hello! Hello!" excitedly as our elevator door opened to their apartment floor. We were enveloped in hugs from all around, then quickly ushered into the apartment (we all remembered to leave our shoes at the door, thankfully- we're getting used to that by now!), introduced to the whole family (Shina's mother, brother, sisters, and nieces and nephews), and then shown a place at the table on the floor. The relatives had already eaten earlier, but they joined us again at the table to share a second meal and to get to know us. We had barely been introduced before they started encouraging us to eat, eat, eat!! It was all very whirl-wind...but once we sat down on the floor at the low table, we picked up our chopsticks and didn't put them down for another hour or so.

The food was absolutely delicious- Shina said her sisters and mother are very good cooks, so we were getting the best of the best! I couldn't get over the fact that I was sharing a big holiday meal with a Korean family...sitting at a table on the floor...hearing Korean spoken all around me...using chopsticks...and eating so much food that I had never tasted before. It was just amazing!! The meal selection included, but was not limited to: beef galbi (very tender, marinated, and grilled beef), jopchae (stir-fried sweet potato cellophane noodles with mixed vegetables and ham), oysters, a plate of whole fish (eyes, teeth, and all!), songpyeong (traditional Chuseok rice cakes with sweet red bean paste and sesame filling), marinated mushrooms and greens, Asian pears, chestnuts, and more.

After the meal, Shina's siblings took us on a tour around Gwanju, including a memorable last stop atop a local mountain to watch the sunset while sipping tongdongju, a sweet rice wine. We were sad to part with this Korean family at the end of the day- even though our conversations were were limited, as Shina's family didn't speak much English, it still felt as though we had communicated effortlessly. The sincerity and generosity of Shina's family was undoubtedly evident- and we felt so fortunate to have met them and shared the Chuseok holiday in their home. It was also so great to have "parents" for a weekend again- Uncle Bob and Shina. I think that was one reason we didn't want to leave their home in Jeonju on Sunday- it felt so comforting to have people looking out for us, teaching us, and of course, feeding us. What a weekend!!! :) :)

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