Chuseok in Ulsan

Ok! I am finally going to update about my Chuseok holiday weekend! Better late than never right?!

What is Chuseok?

Chuseok is often compared to Thanksgiving. Both are celebrations of harvest. While Americans give thanks for all the good things in our lives, Koreans give thanks to their ancestors  and preform ancestral rites ceremonies.

Chuseok is on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, so every year the date changes. This year Chuseok was September 27th. The holiday is actually celebrated for 3 days–the day before, the day of, and the day after–and are considered “red days”, meaning no one goes to school or work. This year the three days fell on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. We were also given Tuesday as a red day, called a Holiday Makeup Day. The explanation I was given for this was because the holiday fell during the weekend when people already don’t work. So, we all had a 4-day holiday weekend!

Also similar to Thanksgiving, families travel back to their homes and/or the family’s original hometown. The traffic is crazy and train tickets sell out weeks in advance.

The women cook many traditional foods for the charye, the ancestral rites ceremony. Songpyeon is one of the Chuseok staples. It is a special rice cake made only for Chuseok.

A huge part of the holiday is visiting the graves of ancestors and preforming the charye. This is done by offering food and drink to ancestors as thanks for the ancestors for watching over them. Families will also cut the grass and take care of the area around the graves of ancestors.

(I’m no expert on Chuseok, these are just things I’ve collected about the holiday from different friends over years; so if anything is incorrect please let me know in the comments!)

Chuseok with a long-time friend and endless food

I was invited to spend the Chuseok weekend with one of my oldest Korean friends (I will refer to him as his initials, JC).

It’s a crazy story how we met, but we knew eachother long before I attended school in Seoul. When I arrived in Seoul we finally met up. He’s been like a Korean uncle to me since then, just looking out for me while I’m in Korea and away from my family. JC is married now to his girlfriend (JO) that I met 5 years ago, and they have a 2-year-old daughter with a second daughter on the way!

JC’s family is from Ulsan, so I took a bus from Busan and met JC and his family there. Ulsan is the 7th largest city in South Korea, and very close to Busan. The bus ride only took about 1 hour.

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Busan and Ulsan

Ulsan Day 1

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Expensive fruit! Before Chuseok, the department and grocery stores sell fancy boxes of fruit, ginseng, Spam, oils, and beauty items. Apparently the quality of the ingredients inside these box is better, hence the crazy expensive prices! These are some of the cheaper fruit boxes. By the way: the tan fruit in front are Korean pears. They are pretty different from pears back home. They almost taste more like an apple. Very delicious!

JC picked me from the bus station and we drove to his parents’ house. I had met his family before at his PhD graduation back in 2010. They are all very sweet and very welcoming people. I was jokingly told that my task for the weekend was ‘babysitter’. My friend has his daughter, and his brother has 2 daughters (about 1 and 5 years old). Both of the daughter-in-laws were pregnant (with more girls!) and had a lot of work to do for cooking and preparing things, so I didn’t mind at all playing with and entertaining the kids.

After a few hours we all got into cars and made our way up a mountain to a columbarium (do you know how long it took me to figure the name of this place in English?!)  where some of the families’ urns are stored.  Outside the columbarium, stations for preforming the charye were available. I stood back and observed the ceremony which included a lot of bowing, pouring of alcohol (soju and makgeolli), lighting candles. It was very special to watch. I’m really thankful that JC and his family welcomed me to partake and watch this special ceremony.

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charye table set up and meanings of the food

After the ceremony finished, the food was gathered and we made a picnic in the grass to share the food together. The columbarium was on top of a mountain, so the view was beauitful! JC’s daughter and I enjoyed throwing grass over the fence and watching it blow away in the wind. After working for middle school students for a month, I had forgotten how easily entertained little kids are by the simplest things. She’s also super cute!

After eating, we went inside the columbarium to see the family urns.

We returned to Ulsan city and some of us drove to a local fish market to buy dinner. It was here that I saw whale meat for the first time in my life! Apparently Ulsan is famous for whale meat.

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Fish market in Ulsan

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Whale meat

So as I said, dinner was fish; raw fish to be exact. Now, normally I do not like raw fish. However, this fish was chopped very thin and then tucked inside a lettuce wrap with other vegetables and sauce. The other food I surprisingly enjoyed were the mushrooms! Normally I really hate mushrooms because they taste like dirt to me. It’s been more than 2 months so I don’t remember what these mushrooms tasted like, but I remember they were delicious! JC said they were really expensive and good for your health.

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This isn’t even all of the food!! More dishes were added after I took this photo.

After dinner we played a traditional Korean game called yutnori. I’ve seen this game played on Korean TV shows, but never learned the rules or played myself. There are four sticks which you throw into the air. Depending on how the sticks fall is how many spaces around the game board you move. It was a little confusing at first, but eventually I started getting the hang of it. The family got really into the game! Especially JO and JC’s dad! It was really fun! And funny!

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To make things interesting the family (and I) split into two teams. The losing team would have to go out and buy ice cream for dessert. JC, JO, and I won (probably no thanks to me)!

Day 2

JC, his parents, and his brother left early in the morning to travel to their ancestor’s burial site. I’m not sure where exactly this is, but I think JO told me it was about 3 hours away. While there, they would take care of the site, cut grass, and preform the charye ceremony again.

The wives stayed behind because they were pregnant and I stayed with them. First thing in the morning I was given the mission of going out and buying milk for the kids, and to take the older two with me! I was told to go to the convenience store below the house, but I found it was closed. So the kids and I walked further down the road to two more: closed. After the third store the 4 year old thought it would be cool to run into the middle of the road instead of holding my hand. For a few minutes I was chasing and picking up crazy children off the street. We got back to the house safely, but with no milk. And then everyone realize it was Chuseok, whoops!

JO’s parents also live in Ulsan. We were going to spend that night with them so the three of us–JO, her daughter, and I–headed there in the afternoon. Her mom was super sweet and wouldn’t stop feeding us! After a while JO and I went out to chat at a cafe while her parents spent some time with their grandchild. JO is also a teacher, so it was great to talk to her and get lots of advice from her on how to handle middle school kids and different interesting topics to teach them.

JC returned just in time for dinner. SO. MUCH. FOOD. Imagine Thanksgiving for three days; lunch and dinner.

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The cutest thing ever happened at night. JC, his daughter, and I went for a much needed walk along the river to see the harvest moon. His daughter was enjoying playing on the outdoor exercise equipment. She even played a little bit of ball with two very reluctant boys. When we were walking back, a police car pulled into the parking lot.

There is a children’s TV show in Korea called Robocar Poli where the main characters are a police car, Poli, an ambulance, Amber, and a helicopter, Heli. Korean kids are obsessed with this show; including JC’s daughter. She started yelling “Poli, Poli!” and running in the direction of the police car. The policemen in the car started waving and smiling at her. She was sooooo happy! It was so cute! You had to be there hahaha!

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This kids playing with Robocar Poli toys

The rest of the evening was spent just chilling in the house watching a Korean drama on the TV. I was pretty proud of myself that I could understand most of the story without English subtitles!

Day 3

After breakfast, we all went to a nearby hospital clinic because JO and their daughter were pretty sick with colds. Because it was a holiday, most hospital clinics were closed, so this was was crazy packed! The wait time was over an hour.

When we finished at the hospital we went to a department store nearby and JC’s daughter picked out a toy. I had fun looking at all the toys Korean children like. A lot of Robocar Poli and Pororo!

Back at JO’s house, JC and JO taught me how to play another traditional Korean game; Go Stop. I’ve wanted to learn this game for a long time! The rules are really complicated, so the only way to learn is to play with experienced players. It was still pretty complicated! I think I got the basic rules down, but there are many confusing rules about how to earn points. Apparently the rules can also vary by family. I think I won a few times, but I honestly haven’t a clue how I won. Something about bird pictures….???

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Go Stop cards

For dinner we went to JC’s brother’s house to celebrate their mom’s birthday. It wasn’t her birthday yet, but since the whole family was together they decided to celebrate a little early. The birthday dinner included even MORE food and cake. I remember there was seaweed soup, which is a Korean tradition to eat on your birthday. Besides that, I can’t remember what else we ate. I just remember being so full!

After dinner JC drove me back to the Ulsan bus station so I could return to Busan.

Thank you so much JC and JO, and your entire families. I  can’t thank you all enough, and I hope I get the chance to share Thanksgiving with you in America someday in the future.

— Credits —

Charye table photo: Korea Times “Feast for Ancestors”, Woo Hae -chung & Nam Yoon-seo

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