Friday, December 04, 2009

Visiting Family, Alive and in the Afterlife

It's really important to go around and greet all your family members, especially when the whole point of the trip is to celebrate your matrimonial union.

One thing you should do is bow. Like, really bow. It's called "jul" and Isaac already knows how to do it because my parents taught him to do it for them on New Year's Day. You slowly float down to the ground and then bend over, your head to your hands on the ground, pause, then slowly get back up. Usually you say a greeting.

When we saw my halmuni (grandma), we were to do this.

"What are we supposed to say?" Isaac asked.

"Oh don't say anything," I responded. "I'll do the talking." I was hurriedly trying to practice, "Halmuni, live a healthy and happy long life," in my head in Korean.

Isaac wanted to say something, too. "Should I say....Yeobosayo?"

Just as an example of humour that doesn't cross languages and cultures, this was the FUNNIEST THING HE HAS SAID TO ME in many, many months. I told Mom and we shrieked with laughter and my whole family bust up giggling. Oh, poor Isaac *hand squeeze*. It's ok.

"Yeobosayo" is how you say "hello" when you pick up the phone. It's not what you say when you bow deeply to your elders, although it's easy to see why Isaac might think it could be. A greeting's a greeting, right? Not in Korean!

On another day, there was some confusion as to whether we should bow to my uncle, who is in the last stages of life, dying of cancer. I didn't know why we shouldn't but learned later that it was a bit superstitious - it's as if deeply bowing to him might invite his death to come around earlier. We greeted him as we usually would, with a bow standing up. Even though he is in considerable pain, and on lots of painkillers, his eyes were bright and he greeted us with scattered thoughts from a deep and fundamental place in his being.

He told Isaac that we are a "yangban" family (noble, aristocratic), which I hadn't ever known or even thought about. At first, I thought it was a strange thing to say in your first greeting to a new member of the family, but given the context, it actually makes perfect sense. When every little scrap of info I learn about my family is a revelation, this was a big one.

Later, when Dad took me and Isaac to Korea Folk Village, we stood inside a genuine yangban household and he told me that his grandfather had a house just like it in a village that is now in North Korea. I guess I hadn't thought back any further than my Dad's own immigrant, hardscrabble experience and his war-torn childhood before that. I hadn't thought of a richer time and what it's like to lose so much status. My uncle was able to whisper that bit of information to us before we were ushered out to let him rest.

We've also visited many graves. My father's parents are in a cemetary 30 minutes from the North Korean border in a cemetary loosely translated as, "For Those Who Miss Their Homeland." It is a cemetary for North Korean refugees who came south before the border clanged shut with the end of the war.

You bow down to the ground here, too, twice for the dead. You make offerings of food for their spirits. Fruit is cut off at the top and dried fish had chopsticks placed right next to it to make it easier for their spirits to partake. Soju is poured into little cups.

We all stood in a row. My father's uncle, the eldest generation present, announced that we'd come from Canada to greet them. Then we bowed, slowly, twice in a row. Then we took the soju and poured it on their grave. We did this separately for every grave site we visited.

It was a pared-down version of the entire ritual. I know about it because we've done it many times for my uncle in Toronto. My parents hardly remember all the little details of how to do it. I've always been a tag-along participant. How will these rituals live on through me and into the future? I guess they're not mine - they're of the people who still live here...


Blogger Michelle said...

Hannah, what an amazing story your family has to tell. I wish I knew more about their North Korean background!

12:47 AM  
Blogger Michelle said...

Hannah, what an amazing story your family has to tell. I wish I knew more about their North Korean background!

12:47 AM  

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