Happy Chuseok everyone! This three day holiday is a big deal in Korea: Seoul has largely emptied and the streets are washed with a post-apocalyptic calm. If I ever make a low-budget Korean zombie film – and I hope I get the chance somehow – I will definitely film it during Chuseok. I wouldn’t even need to make sets; the empty, rubbish-strewn streets would fit the bill perfectly.
During Chuseok, Korean families return to their ‘hometown,’ which means wherever your Dad – or sometimes Mum – comes from. Even though you yourself may never have lived there, your grandparents probably still do. Since half the population lives in Seoul, it means the whole metropolis drains out into the peninsula, the trains and highways overloaded with families carrying gift-wrapped box sets of spam, fruit, soap, tuna and other things Koreans believe make amazing presents. The sight of a suited up Korean husband on a train hastily wrapping a box set of spam in a gold cloth while his wife shouted at him was just priceless.
The holiday, originating as a harvest festival, is a time of family and feasting, with special foods prepared by the family that are usually eaten only during Chuseok, and which Koreans find incredibly difficult to explain to non-Koreans. Being a fairly traditional pants-wearing society, I expected that just the women would cook, but a lot of my male students sighed and informed me, when asked, that they too had a lot of cooking to do. Many families use Chuseok as a time to visit family tombs, worship their ancestors and give offerings to the deceased. Some families can’t be bothered, and most Christian families don’t do it because they see it as worshiping something other than God, but for many it is just a matter of paying respect to those who have come before you, and a chance to clean and spruce up their resting place a little.
I didn’t get my invite to a family feast, and I’ve been too busy anyway. Luckily though, my girlfriend’s mum cooked up an enormous bag of food for us to have an impromptu Chuseok takeaway lunch, including my favourite dish, galbi-jim – beef rib stew. She even went out and picked chestnuts for us!
I was expecting Seoul to be more deserted than it currently is, as plenty of shops are still open and things can get busy, but once you get off the main streets the quiet and calm is incredible. What I love though is those little scenes and noises, the whispered hints of the merriment and fun going on behind closed doors. An outburst of song or laughter, a kid’s face poking out of a window randomly, families marching up unfamiliar streets laden with gifts before disappearing into a house, these private celebrations are all around but you just can’t see them. I really hope to have the privilege of seeing Chuseok celebrations first-hand next year, but for now, I’m more than satisfied with a bag full of food, some peace and quiet, and three days off.
No pics of the neighbourhood this update, the area is too quiet and I want to capture it in its usual, lively state.