Memories of Chuseok
I had never heard of Chuseok. It was 2016, and I was living in Seoul as a research scholar for the Fulbright Program, an American government exchange program that supports mid-career professionals to teach or conduct research in countries around the world. I remember sitting alone in my grant-funded one-room apartment in a trendy area of this massive city, lined with coffee shops more akin to bespoke coffee ateliers as well as the mom-and-pop mandu, or potsticker, restaurants where you could order from a steaming window.
But something was happening. I could feel it in the air. The local supermarket suddenly had huge displays—almost reverential—of Spam and cooking oil gift boxes. There was a rush of activity, more than usual, and crowds of people rushing around to grab last-minute food items for what I would later understand to be Korea’s biggest holiday. I chuckled at the Spam and cooking oil gift boxes priced at 50 to 80 USD—my American eyes saw them as a humble, if not a declasse, gift choice to extend to a party host. I would later learn that those items are appreciated and are nostalgic to Koreans, hearkening back to a time of scarcity after the Korean War where such items were only available on the black market or through connections with the U.S. military.
From my desk perch, I could even hear the silence engulfing my corner of the bustling city. People were leaving in droves, packing up for hours-long car and train rides to the places where their families were from, before their generation had successfully moved up in the world to be able to call Seoul home. Stores were closing down. The only people working in convenience stores were young people who couldn’t afford to take time off or those similar to me—a foreigner with no family to meet.
Once there, generations of families would gather and the women would prepare an elaborate table of traditional foods. The men and children would catch up on rest, drink soju—a distilled, colorless spirit that is consumed with meals and used to mark life’s celebrations—and eat and eat. The family would also pay a visit to the ancestral burial sites to pay their respects.
As a Korean adoptee, back living in her native country after more than four decades of being abandoned and erased from her family, it suddenly struck me like a kick in the gut or sinking into a muddy pool: at that moment, my family was gathering and doing exactly these things potentially only one-hour away from me—and I had no idea who they were or how to find them.
How strange it is to discover a holiday that marks the passing of time for an entire nation for the first time as a forty-something year old, who if not for being adopted internationally, would’ve also been marking my calendar and loading my shopping cart with fruit and tins of Spam in fancy packaging? Who would later be posting Instagram posts of a sleepy car ride or pouring soju out for my clan’s forebears near a grassy burial mound? It made me think about how physical proximity, being in Korea, did not bring me any closer to my biological family. How I still remained, now even more so, a foreigner, unknown to people who share her blood, who remember her, who held her for those 11 days before passing through hands and time to an unfamiliar place across the vast ocean to people who did not speak Korean nor had ever set foot in the country, who celebrated their roots by making lefse, a humble, rolled potato pancake frosted with sugar. They did not know about Chuseok, and neither had I.
When adoptees talk about loss, it is not just about losing one’s natural language or the person who carried them for nine months in her womb, or the family members who may have ultimately decided her presence was not wanted. It’s also the loss of being a Korean, to feel respect for one’s ancestors, to cherish this time to be thankful for family and prosperity, to look forward to the holiday with anticipation, and to hunger for the food and opportunity to slow down.
And while not all Koreans may crave all this family togetherness each year, to me it unearthed a loneliness I never knew I had. That circumstances beyond my control, no matter how many degrees I earned or prestigious international exchanges I would be granted, or how many online Korean classes I sign up for, knowing what Chuseok means as a Korean, an insider, is something I can’t ever teach myself or substitute with prepared food from a local Korean restaurant or grocer. To me, the pours of soju and eating songpyeon, a rice cake eaten at room temperature, will always feel performative, whose taste feels a bit odd, if not a reminder of all that I have lost.
Kaomi Goetz is a Korean adoptee living in St. Paul, MN. She produces a podcast on (mostly) Korean adoptee stories called Adapted Podcast.
Currently, she is raising money to translate its fourth season into Korean. You can find out more here: http://kck.st/35fRuWW.