9-11 February 2013
Although Korea recognizes the Solar New Year calendar, the Lunar New Year -Seollal- is their more important and celebrated holiday. Traditionally on this holiday, families travel back to their hometowns to visit distant relatives and children wear traditional clothing- hanboks- to show respect to their ancestors. They play traditional games and eat Tteokguk (Duckguk)-rice cake soup. Also, according to the Korean aging system (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_age_reckoning)-everyone turns one year older- as soon as they finish their soup, that is.
At school we celebrated the holiday by dressing up in hanboks (yes, there are embarrassing photos floating around on the interwebs) and playing traditional games. The game that I played with the kids was called Biseokchigi which involved knocking down a little wooden block by dropping another wooden block on top after carrying the block for a distance of about two meters in a creative way such as on top of your foot, head or between your knees or armpit. Sounds riveting, doesn’t it? We also played with little things that were like hacky sacks but covered with tinsel and the kids got to see why AnniTeacher is a teacher and not a soccer player.
After school I went out to dinner with my fellow teachers-Lacey, from Texas and Jihee, a Korean teacher from Busan. Jiheeb took us to one of her favorite Korean barbecue places, conveniently located next door to one of her favorite drinking places. We ordered Bulgogi which translates to “fire meat” and refers to the thinly sliced beef sirloin that they serve to the table raw. Each table is outfitted with its own charcoal barbecue grill and it is up to the diners to grill their own meat, garlic, peppers, and whatever other side dishes they choose to throw on. In total, the meal consists of grilled meat, fresh vegetables, grilled vegetables, and pickled vegetables and of course a little soju and hite on the side. It was like having a perfect summer picnic except we were in a small, smoky room surrounded by tipsy Korean men in the middle of winter.
Jiheeb also taught me how to say “Happy New Year” or “receive many New Year blessings”- a phrase which kids say to their parents or older relatives as they bow their heads and extend their hands hoping for a little pocket money. After several hundred times of repeating it I was starting to think I sounded pretty good and was going around saying “SayHey – Bok – MaNi – BahDooSayYo” to just about anyone I could find- and I ended up with 600 won! (with about 500 from Jihee…)
And although the Friday festivities were fun, for me, Seollal was an exceptionally glorious holiday for one beautiful reason: no school on Monday! Long weekend!!
The girls and I took advantage of our extra day off to go exploring outside of Busan. We decided to take a train to Daegu- the fourth largest city in Korea, about one hour Northeast of Busan. We had big sightseeing plans laid out but by the time we actually arrived we were so tired from a long week at work that we decided to take it easy by walking around and perusing the many shops and then meeting up with some friends at a foreigner restaurant. Unfortunately for us, all of the fellow English teachers that normally reside in Daegu were all in Busan for the long weekend so the town was comparatively quiet to how it (apparently) normally is. But we made the best of it and got some quality girl time bonding and many inside jokes out of the weekend.
We got the train back to Busan on Sunday and made it home with plenty of daylight to burn so I went for a quick little hike up my favorite tombstone hill. The hike gets easier every time I go and this time was especially nice because hardly anyone was on the trail. However, as I neared the top I could hear some kind of yelling. I had heard similar yelling before and assumed it was monks from the temple nearby, but this sounded different. When I reached the peak I found a very ancient looking little woman, perched on the edge, overlooking the city. She looked like she was concentrating very hard but then all of a sudden she stood up tall, arched her back, brought her hands to her mouth and shouted out a big, “YA HO!” Then she turned 45 degrees to her left and did it again, “YA HO!!!!” and finally, turning 45 degrees more she bellowed, “YA HO!!” so loud that it echoed in the quiet air around us. I was embarrassed because I realized I had intruded on some sort of ritual and instead of waiting my turn quietly below the peak I had just stood there and stared at her “like I was a simpleton” (as my Irish friend Elaine would say). She finally noticed me and, whether she was finished or not she slowly left the peak and began hiking down. I felt bad for interfering with whatever it was that she was doing, but I couldn’t help it- I was so caught up with the power of such a big voice coming from such a tiny creature and the reverberating sound it made on that quiet mountain top and the fact that she was likely celebrating the arrival of the new year- the year that I would spend in Korea- the year of the snake, my Chinese zodiac symbol- supposedly, my lucky year. I realized the sun was beginning to set and so, alone on the mountain, I decided to embrace the sentiment of the moment and shouted out my biggest “YAHOOO!” before looking around self-consciously and hiking quickly back down the trail.
새해 복 많이 받으세요!