Korean Thanksgiving

‘Take a photo of the spread,’ my mother says. ‘This way you can remember what to arrange when I’m dead.’

by 2400 2,400 words
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Food at a graveside during the Korean festival of Chusok. Photo by Michel Setboun

Food at a graveside during the Korean festival of Chusok. Photo by Michel Setboun

Mary H K Choi is editor-at-large for MTV Style and contributes to Wired, The New York Times and The Awl. She lives in New York.

‘This is where Bing Crosby’s buried,’ says my mom from the front seat of my middle aunt’s car. Mother is feeling triumphant because she’s conned me into a twofer. I’d been guilt-tripped into attending Catholic mass and now we were on our way to visit her parents’ gravesites. I should have brought my own car — a Corolla rental — but I’d felt so pleased with myself, so pious and doting to accompany my 65-year-old mother to church, that I never imagined she’d pull a stunt like this.

My youngest aunt is in the back with me, clutching three cellophane-bundled bouquets of flowers in her tiny, star-shaped paws. All four of us are wearing enormous, aggressively Asian sun hats. Mom and I got ours from the Korean dollar-store the day before. They are identical. I picked mine first — an angular, stylised, straw Regency bonnet that looks cool if you dress sort of goth and deconstructed — and she got hers to match. I thought about switching but relented. From the back there is no mistaking that we are together. We don’t look cool.

We’re 15 minutes late like we always are. On the verdant lawn of Holy Cross Cemetery, in Culver City, California, about three hills in from the main gate, I see my mother’s oldest brother, his wife (also in a massive sun hat) and their Yorkshire Terrier, Cherry. The outlook is grim. They’ve staked their claim with two picnic blankets side by side. The blankets mean business. They are flanked by five heaving bags of food, which means we’re in for the long haul.

This is one of two cemeteries I’ve ever been to ever, and I had no idea dining al fresco among tombstones was a thing. I wonder if it’s an Asian thing — which it so would be — and do a 360-degree turn to confirm that, while not exclusive to yellows, most of the families with an elaborate buffet set-up and another blanket to indicate ‘post-lunch napping zone’ are 100 per cent not white.

I text the cousins: no dice. It seems I’m the only kid dumb enough to get roped. Everyone else submitted iron-clad excuses ages ago — work, kids of their own, vague previous engagements (that I suspect to be golf), distance — and no one gave me the heads-up. Rookie move: it’s the weekend before the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar. That means it’s almost Korean Thanksgiving, an occasion for reflection and time-suck ancestral memorial rites.

Lately, I’m off my game with this stuff. I’d forgotten it was Sunday too, since I live in New York and work as a freelancer: days of the week are insignificant unless it comes to deadlines. Either way, I’ll be lucky to get out of here in less than two hours. My uncle’s wife squeals when she sees my mother. They haven’t seen each other in more than a year, and have stockpiled gossip to workshop. I should have brought a book.

These are the ingredients for a proper jesa, or offering. You need incense because smoke allows your dead forebears to travel from one dimension to the next. You take a cup of raw rice and plant the joss stick in it so it stays upright. You need soju, or rice wine, and if you’re the oldest son you’re supposed to pour a little out for the deceased, as though you were a rapper paying tribute to your fallen homies. Coincidentally, my uncle’s school chum is buried nearby so he walks over and pours a little out for him as well. ‘This guy really knew how to put it away,’ he remarks. Share the wealth. Spread love.

Then you assemble oranges, apples and pears into pretty piles, making sure to remove the tops off a couple of each with a paring knife so that the ghosts can eat them. Apparently spirits can move through space and time but peel is impregnable. There are always grapes. Korean grapes, or Kyoho grapes, which are a Concord hybrid and feature thick, bitter skins that you toss once you’ve sucked out and swallowed the slippery insides, seeds and all. Beside them are rice cakes, chewy, dense, baby-fist sized globs of glutinous rice thumb-poked with a smudge of sesame paste or sweetened bean and then closed up. They’re slathered with oil so they don’t stick together but I don’t eat them because: carbs.

A soup is always featured, and this one’s a clear broth with bits of turnip and beef floating throughout. It’s meant to be taro not turnip for this time of year but since I rocked up with nothing more than a venti Starbucks coffee I can’t complain. There are four kinds of meat. Marinated steak, meat-stuffed peppers, some sort of braised something or other, and a fritter that tastes as much like fish as it does chicken. Everything is party food and I can’t get hungry.

A passive-aggressive quibble erupts because we have double dates. My littlest aunt was meant to bring the dates, which she did, proudly, in a large Ziploc freezer bag but my uncle has brought some, too. He presumed she’d bring dried ones and he’s managed to source some fresh. Trouble is, she’s ponied up for fresh ones too, and we now have 60 or so between us despite nobody ever really eating them. They’re the munchkin pumpkins of the autumnal table setting — all bullshitty show.

After the hubbub settles (my mother declaring it disrespectful to bitch in front of the parents), we submit to the keun jeol, or a series of full-body bows. It’s where you stand up straight, facing the tombstone and then squat-collapse slowly in utter supplication. If you’re a dude, you ease onto your knees and just pitch forward like a coffee table.  It looks a lot like salat, or Muslim prayer, but with your hands on your forehead — palms out — as if you’re imprinting a Jay-Z Roc-A-Fella diamond shape onto the grass. If you’re a woman, after you ease onto your knees, you plant your ass side-saddle and attempt to appear elegant while you deflate your torso until face meets earth.

‘I feel like we’re in a play,’ says my littlest aunt who seems a lot younger than everyone else since she was born after the Japanese occupation and didn’t have to starve as a kid the way the rest of them had. We each bow three times and then do a mini half-bow. There’s some confusion as to whether we’re meant to do three or four — my uncle maintains that four is how many he gets to do as the first-born masculine child — so we all do three and a half. Cherry does zero.

My mother’s as happy as my mood is foul. I’m tasked with waving a paper dinner plate over the dishes so the ample flies — fruit and house — don’t settle on the food. I do this in a lank-limbed, desultory manner. I’m also asked to fetch some water so they can arrange the bouquets into those cylindrical underground flower receptacles but I ignore the request. I know the task will befall my mother’s youngest sister so long as I stay dumb.

As she gets up to find the faucet, I notice that my aunt is wearing Kangaroos, those 1980s kids’ sneakers with a zippered coin pouch on the side. Her feet are cartoonishly small, like dinner rolls. I feel guilty about pawning off the chore since she outranks me, but she pilfered most of my coffee so I figure we’re even. Because I’m in a church dress, I settle prissily on a corner of one blanket, facing away from them but side-saddle so as not to show the world my underpants. Numbness settles in my haunches immediately.

 I haven’t said a word all day but I have been
rapid-fire, Mayday tweeting. This way I sound like myself somewhere

It’s a dazzling California afternoon, there’s a complicated amount of food, and my phone battery is at six per cent. I haven’t said a word all day but I have been rapid-fire, Mayday tweeting. This way I sound like myself somewhere.

It’s not that I don’t understand Korean, I just have to be in the mood for it, and I’m rarely in the mood for it around extended family. I find it most useful for soap operas, movies and eavesdropping, but it’s all I speak with my mom since she refuses to respond in English unless she’s being sarcastic. With her family, she’s chatty. Breezy and funny. And the one who gives sound advice. There are six of them and she falls somewhere in the middle, but she’s also a guest star. Until I was 14, we used to live all the way in Hong Kong; she now lives in Texas, whereas the rest of them live in LA.

‘Take a photo of the spread,’ my mother says. ‘This way you can remember what to arrange when I’m dead.’ Her family laughs. I say nothing and oblige her. I don’t want to get caught wikipedia-ing these rituals when she haunts me.

When my mother’s extra upbeat, she talks about being dead, and she usually says one of three things. That I’ll be grateful for all the nagging since it’ll be hardwired into good habits. That I’ll be so thrilled to be free from the nagging that I’ll have a party (this is where she does this kicky little jig of what I’ll look like dancing on her grave). And how annoyed she’ll be that she didn’t live long enough to see her grandchildren since she’s convinced I’ll have them the second she kicks it. Then she always rues her failure to teach me how to make Korean food. As if I make any of the food I know how.

She’s in such a good mood that I’m beginning to resent it. It can be zero-sum like that with us sometimes.

To be honest, I thought she’d be sadder. Her father died before I was born but her mother passed just recently after years of suffering with Alzheimer’s. My grandmother consistently forgot her husband was dead and the ensuing confusion was reliably heartbreaking. My mother didn’t cry at her funeral but she looked and sounded extra small. We don’t like being touched when we’re sad so I left her alone.

I start to want a glass of wine so bad. Or a neat shot of tequila. Mom’s fielding questions about me and my brother and answers like I’m not there. That’s the arrangement. She often speaks for me with little concern to the faithfulness of the interpretation, and I agree not to care. It’s always interesting to see this version of me, the one made up expressly to impress and entertain church friends, childhood friends or family.

I can’t tell if I’m being Mean Girl’d or Korean lady’d. It doesn’t matter. I’m indifferent to the agenda

It wouldn’t surprise me if they all thought I was a little nuts. Unmarried, gormless, virtually mute. But I like it, it’s like brain vacation or, I guess, a work stoppage. They comment on the fact that I don’t wear enough make-up. Or remark on how refreshing it is that I’ve gotten zero plastic surgery over the years, preserving the same round face I’ve had since I was a kid. I was a fat kid. I can’t tell if I’m being Mean Girl’d or being Korean lady’d. It doesn’t matter. I’m indifferent to the agenda. Truthfully, there’s always some hostility in my blankness — it’s fairly obvious I’d rather be anywhere else. I’m my mom’s asshole boyfriend at brunch.

The weird thing is, I’m not normally this quiet in real life. And I care enough about the discrepancy to wonder if my mother’s people would ever guess that I get into parties. In New York. Good ones. With lists and lines and step-and-repeats and free drinks and bleached teeth. You can even smoke indoors at some of them, they’re that cool. I fantasise about how surprised my mother’s people would be. It’s strange to see her comfortable. I’m so used to her being the alien. Quiet, patient, waiting for me to stop sighing long enough to order her meal for her or explain the instructions or directions that she wants.

She’s never been one of those moms that you can plop into a group of friends and expect her to drink and chat and fit in. Maybe sneak a cigarette that she hasn’t had in ages. We’re equally impossible around each other’s cronies. She routinely speaks Korean to my boyfriend who is Polish-and-Czech mix and born in Maine. I don’t inflict the rest of my friends on her. I like it best when it’s just the two of us anyway.

On this trip, when we were in the steam room, which is where she prefers to do most of her talking, I found out that my grandfather was a prison warden. She also took the occasion to ask me if I knew who she was closest to in the whole wide world. I asked her if it was me. She laughed and laughed, which didn’t hurt my feelings because I knew she’d say my dad out of loyalty to my brother. I’d only said it to make her laugh. I know my role. Anyway, it was only a segue into the importance of marriage which dovetails so neatly into how children can be such joy.

I hold my mother’s purse as we’re packing up to leave, my littlest aunt scoring the lion’s share of the leftovers. I help her up and realise that in these moments, I am my mother’s lowly grunt Hodor. Or else she is my symbiotic infant Kuato. Given everything she’s sacrificed moving to America in her 30s and forsaking the nuances of her personality for most days of the year, it’s only right I take a backseat sometimes.

She tells me she’s bought a plot here and that I’ll be buried beside my husband wherever that is. I tell her quietly that I’m being cremated and shot into space. She laughs. I consider how I’ll have to bring flowers, food and rice wine for everyone since she’ll be embarrassed if I don’t extend the honours to my grandparents. And my dad. And knowing her family, there will probably be brothers and sisters of hers I’ll have to visit with as well. It doesn’t surprise me that she expects me to be buried by my husband, but her husband will be buried by her. Lucky.

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Comments

  • Archies_Boy

    What a great piece! Let's have a toast: Here's to generational differences — long may they wave! :-D

  • Tauri1

    Very interesting piece. My Polish mother used to drag us around to all the cemeteries where our relatives were buried twice a year. We didn't picnic on the graves however.

    Yet, I find the similarities to what the ancient Egyptians did intriguing. I wonder of ancient Egyptian families picniced near the tombs of their dead relatives as well.

  • Ross

    Great article. It reminds me of Moldova’s celebration of “paste blajiinilor,” which translates to something close to memorial easter. People gather in cemeteries to eat and drink the Sunday after easter. Most cemeteries in Moldova have picnic tables for this purpose.

  • madelfi

    In Mexico, people picnic in graveyards on Day of the Dead. Seems this is a worldwide phenomenon.

  • tomi

    it is an interesting article; however, I did not like the tone- it is common that is overused in literature.

  • babby660

    The author sounds like a resentful teenager embarrassed at her relatives' failure to seem like native-born Americans. I'd guess she'll be singing a different song sooner than she thinks.

  • globalguy

    WTF? MY German/Jewish/Oh-so-Caucasian mother and grandma dragged me to the graveyard annually with trowels and flowers in the trunk of our '64 Dodge Valiant. We didn't eat on the the graves but always had snacks nearby. Even saw the old lady take a leak against a tree, slip askew :) So no, honoring the dead ain't just an Asian thing.

  • I’m here for the trainwreck

    I kept waiting for the author to express some self-awareness and appreciation of her cultural and familial ties, and the love that is evident in her family. If she was attempting to make the point with irony, she failed miserably. She sounds ungrateful and self-centered. Of course there is a gap between generations, but ritual is what binds communities and cultures. She will regret this deeply one day. That makes me sad.

  • Claudezilla

    Short version: "God, I'm so embarrassed to be Korean! Amirite?"

  • andrew_curry

    Worthwhile read. Shame that the email misspelt the author's name (and changed her gender).

  • Absolute Trainwreck

    TLDR: "Man I wish I was a WASP."

  • Miho

    From one Asian to another, grow up. You'll never be white. If you can accept that, maybe you'll be comfortable being yourself someday.