Thank you to Terra Trevor for this guest post.
It’s part family reunion, part cultural revival. Our friends remove their shoes at the door. Sounds overlap in layers. The song Arriang and talking and laughter mixed with the clicking of sticks from the game Yut. We’re celebrating Solnal—the first day of the first month by the lunar calendar. Most people think of this as Chinese New Year, but Koreans celebrate as well, and two of my children are adopted from Korea.
My hall table is piled high with wrapped packages, inexpensive items purchased at the dollar store for that long-standing tradition of giving a gift to each guest. The scent of garlic and sesame hang in the air like a spicy fog. I slide a baking sheet with dried seaweed out of the oven and spread sesame oil across the envelope-sized pieces.
“You are supposed to put the sesame oil on before you put it in the oven,” my friend Jung Hee gasps. She pops a piece into her mouth. “Doesn’t matter, it tastes good.”
“The rice isn’t cooking,” I complain.
Two very old Elders; grandmothers with small wrinkled faces strain the excess water and get the massive rice cooker I’ve borrowed from the Korean church to cook a perfect pot of rice.
I pull out a large pan filled with chop chae. “Is this all right?” I ask.
I always feel a tiny bit worried when I cook Korean food for my Korean American friends. I hand a pair of thin stainless steel chopsticks to one of the grandmothers. She tastes a bite, and nods her head in approval. Duk kuk, the special soup made with rice cakes, simmers on my stove.
A group of teenage girls are gossiping in the back bedroom, while the boys play video games in the den. It’s OK. They are soaking up Korean culture by osmosis.
Meanwhile in the living room more game playing begins. Our silliest game is the javelin. We write our names on wooden chopsticks, stand behind a line, and toss them. Prizes (the wrapped packages from the dollar store) are given to everyone. Koreans, I’ve discovered, like Native Americans, love to gamble, so we always include a lively jest of Fifty/Fifty pulled from my own American Indian culture.
A treasured tradition of Korean Lunar New Year is getting new clothes; a traditional Korean hanbok. Wearing a hanbok the children line up, and one by one offer a sebe—a bow to elders, which is the first greeting to the elders of the year.
Our elder-friends gathered, all with high-cheek rounded faces, are our family and Korean and Native community friends. Gloria, wearing her turquoise beaded ear-rings, the pair she beaded last summer that play against her dancing eyes, is the first elder in the line and the littlest boys and girls began trotting up to her, and one by one they bend into a deep bow.
Each child who bows receives a red envelope containing a small amount of “lucky money.”
The word “money” draws the first teenage boy out of the den. He folds his lanky body into a bow with his nose touching the ground, and becomes an instant hero. The laughter draws out the teenage girls.
Throughout the evening my kid’s outgrown hanboks are worn by my friends’ children. Each year they become more stained and frayed from years of bending and bowing. Yet I treasure the memory more this way than if I’d kept them pressed clean in plastic on the top shelf of the closet.
Fiery in spirit and flamboyant, the kids swirl around the living room, their slightly oversized scarlet and fuchsia hanboks rippling, with rainbow sleeves shimmering in the light. My son joins the pageant, and slides around the dining room in his stocking feet. He has a smirk on his face and yet he is glowing and beaming with pride.
We try to prepare the food as authentically Korean as we can, and I will drive an hour in cross-town traffic to get mung beans to make pindaettok. To keep the doings simple we ask each family invited to bring a panchan—a Korean side dish. My husband prepares an elaborate fish dish, and since it’s not a meal without rice and soup we provide that too.
Remembrance weighs heavy on my mind, as it does for all American Indian mothers seeking to affirm cultural identity. So when our family first began embracing Korean ethnicity and braiding it into our lives, way back in 1990, we were careful to stay well within old-style traditional cultural boundaries. However, after making numerous close friendships with those in the Korean American community, I quickly discovered it’s all right to play with various ways of celebrating, and put a modern day personal spin on the holiday. What’s important is to create rituals of intimate gathering with family and friends, sharing a Korean meal and good times together, so that our children will grow up holding a piece of Korean tradition in their hands and in their hearts.
When our kids were teenagers and the idea of hanging out at home was no longer at the top of their list of fun things to do on a Saturday night, we suggested they each invite a friend, or two or three, and our guest list grew.
One year, while caught in the throes of a winter season requiring my unremitting attention, I asked my kids, “Couldn’t we make do with a smaller party this year?”
All three gasped at once and said “But we like the big party.” My son chimed in, “Didn’t you know— it’s our favorite holiday.”
My attempt to peal back the layers and discover what this lunar new year gathering actually meant to him was brushed aside in a typical teenager manner. Then a kind of palpable energy hovered in his husky voice, “It just makes me happy, Mom, that’s all.”
Terra Trevor, of Cherokee, Delaware, Seneca ancestry, is the mother of three children. She is a contributing writer for Adoption Today magazine, and is a contributing author of ten books. Her memoir Pushing up the Sky: A Mother’s Story, is widely anthologized. www.terratrevor.com
Melanie Mayo-Laakso is the Content Manager for Mothering.com. Mothering is the birthplace of natural family living and attachment parenting. We celebrate the experience of parenthood as worthy of one’s best efforts and are at once fierce advocates for children and gentle supporters of parents.