The Main Piece
“During certain times of the year we would leave out food for our ancestors, the date would very because it would depend on the date they died. So my grandma died on the 18th of September so we would leave food out for her then every year. It wouldn’t be for every relative we had ‘cus that would be excessive, but the ones we were especially close to we would be sure to leave food out for them. They would usually leave out duck, chicken and fruit on a nice porcelain plate, or whatever nice plate they could find around the house (just not any paper plates). For every ancestor it would always be the same food. After a night they would take the chicken and duck back into the house, pray for said ancestor, and eat it. However, they would leave the fruit out, unsure of why they would not eat the fruit exactly, but never questioned it since she was only a child.
My informant is Rachel Tan, a current first year undergraduate student and personal friend of mine at USC. Rachel did not understand the practice at first, she was too young to understand. She would spend a lot of time at her grandparents’ house since her family traveled a lot. The practice was more from her Cambodian side, her grandmother being full Cambodian. Rachel would help her grandmother with this practice during her elementary school days before she was old enough to stay home alone. She thinks of it fondly as a time where she was able to “take care of her ancestors” and hoped that her descendants would eventually take care of her as well.
We discussed this in Ronald Tutor Campus Center over lunch as we were talking about our families and life back home.
My grandmother is Cantonese, but is also very connected to her culture, feeling it is extremely important just as Rachel’s grandmother does. Therefore, it was easy for me to relate to growing up with grandparents extremely cultured, but not understanding all of their practices. I honestly thought it was a bit odd that they ate the food that they left overnight, but I suppose every culture has its oddities. Hearing about how this practice gave her more of a connection with her ancestors and hopes to have this practice create some type of relationship with her descendants that she may never meet in the future was very touching and heartwarming.
Title: Haunted Bedroom
Interviewee: Steven Miao
Situation (Location, ambience, gathering of people?): In his room at Webb tower at USC in Los Angeles. Me and the interviewer.
Piece of Folklore:
Interviewee- “Apparently my sister thinks my room back home is haunted. Every time she sleeps in my room, she wakes up in the middle of the night with a heavy chest. She is superstitious and a believer in spirits. She has tried to make me move out of my room once. My parents were worried about me, and asked if I woke up at night with a heavy chest. She said it was the spirits of ancestors that were angry with us.”
Interviewer- “When was the first time you heard about this?”
Interviewee- “Well it kind-of just was, ever since we had moved into that house that we live in now. She never like the house, and for some reason especially me room. She just always has really…weird experiences when she sleeps in that room. I don’t know, it’s seems fine to me. I never had anything wrong with it. I like my room actually, it’s nice.”
Interviewer- “Is this a story you like to tell people about?”
Interviewee- “Not really. I mean I usually tell people that story if they ask if I know of any ghost stories or things like that. But no I don’t particularly like telling people this story. To be honest it creeps me out a little thinking about that fact that my sister could be right…”
Analyzation: The Interviewee seems to recall this story in multiple parts, more coming back to him as he speaks more. It is obvious that this story indeed is not one that he tells often, because he does not remember most of it. But that is how it goes, especially since he said himself that he does not like talking about it much. Perhaps allowing the idea of ghosts or ancestors living in his room unnerves him, as he recently has had trouble with his parents, and worries about what his parents think of his life’s choices. That being said, it makes sense that the sister is worried about the Interviewee, and that she worries that the ancestors of both of them would be unhappy with what the Interviewee is doing with his life, which is contrary to traditional Chinese practices.
Tags: Haunted Room, Haunting, Ancestors
During Summer, which is usually August, there’s this thing, which is.. Um.. we believe that the doors between Ying and Yang, which is between heaven and..um….. Earth and hell will open, so all the three, um…. worlds will open together and become one on Earth. So it’s like, it’s kind of the concept of purgatory opening on Earth.. It’s kind of weird. But then, at this time, usually ancestors will come back, ghosts will come back, and especially those who has no relatives or those who does not have people…. to respect them after their death. So, those are ghosts with bad intentions, and people do fear them and respect them at the same time. So, during this whole month, usually people go to temples. They pray for them. They pray that one day they can leave purgatory and go up to heaven. And they’ll bring food and, um, basically.. pray for them. So, that’s what we do during the whole summer and, at the end of August, the door will close again and we hope that those that we prayed for, and we gave food for, will go up to heaven.
The informant said that she learned Taiwanese traditions from her grandparents, or it was talked about at her school (there would be stories in their textbooks about them). She emphasized that it is very important to her that she learns these traditions and keeps them up, even though some of them conflict with her own religious beliefs, because they are part of her cultural heritage. She said that it makes her sad when she sees Taiwanese-Americans who do not know or practice any Taiwanese traditions, because they are missing out on something that is a part of who they are and helps to define them.
Outside of simply being widely practiced in Taiwan, this tradition seemed deeply rooted in Chinese and Taiwanese beliefs about ancestors and respect. It makes sense, then, why this tradition is so important to the informant, who is from Taiwan, but is currently going to school in the U.S. and plans to live in the U.S. in the future. Carrying on this tradition seems to be a way for her to keep her connection to her Taiwanese identity, even though she now lives outside of that country.
This story was told to me by my friend who had come from Korea recently. It was the day right before Seollal and I wanted to know more about how it was celebrated in Korea. He had experienced this tradition every year for all of his life, and he had learned most of what he did from his parents and grandparents. In telling me how they celebrated the New Years and “Thanksgiving,” he also informed me of what it meant to him personally. He said that he believed these properly reflect how you should be thankful to nature and to your parents. Both of these holidays involve filial piety in that you honor your parents and the ones who came before you. You thank them for providing for you, and you thank nature for being bountiful as well, providing for your own needs. He believed that these holidays were also a very unifying time. Families come together during this time period to talk about anything and everything, catching up on the latest family gossip or simply asking how other people were doing. Family is an essential part of his life, and so anything that helped strengthen the bonds that family made were exceedingly important to him.
Chuseok is a traditional Korean holiday. It is celebrated on August 15th according to the lunar calendar. As a result, its date moves around from year to year according to the calendar that we use. It can be considered as the Korean equivalent to Thanksgiving, but it is also very different. Chuseok is a holiday that is meant to celebrate the newly harvested grain. It celebrates that the earth had been fertile and provided so much grain that everybody could have food for the following wintertime.
It is a very important time when it comes to family. There is a three day holiday from work, and everybody is not expected to do anything work related. Everybody goes back to their hometown from wherever they are. So what happens is that in order to celebrate, people leave on their first day off to drive back to wherever it is that they came from. It is such a big holiday, that there are even special buses that are meant for taking people back home. However, because everybody is going back to their hometown to visit their family, the traffic is really bad. It is well known that the traffic jams are impossible to the point that it takes up to 20 hours just to move from city to city. It doesn’t matter to the people though. Regardless of how many people or there, or how long it takes, people will work their way just to get back to their families.
When you get back home, you must reunite with your family. Traditionally, you will eat dinner together and talk about your lives while you have been apart. Or if you have been living together the whole time, then you talk about what it is that you appreciate most and be cheerful. It is usually a very lively party. Everyone will make a Korean dish called songpyeon. It is a dessert, and is essentially a sweet rice cake filled with different fillings. Some are made with eggs, others are made with sesame seed paste, and some are just made with sweet filling. It is a family event, and usually everybody will learn it from their grandmothers. After they make it, everybody will come together to happily eat it. It is a very enjoyable time, and will also end up being a way to wish for revitalization for the land so that it may be “fertile” once again, and that good fortune will come for the following year.
Earlier in the day, the family will go the grave mounds where their ancestors are buried. They will clean the mound by trimming the plants around it and making it look presentable. Then they will hold a ceremony that will honor the dead, hoping to placate the spirits that guard the family and have them continue to bestow their blessings. They will usually offer food up to their ancestors, and some of them will provide pleasures that their ancestors enjoyed during life. However, the placement of the food is ultimately very important. Rice and soup are placed on the north side while fruits and vegetables are placed on the south side. On the west are the meat dishes, and on the east are the drinks. They do vary from region to region, but otherwise it is pretty consistent. Some people light cigarettes and leave them in a dish nearby. Others buy liquor and pour it all over the burial mound. All of this is done in order to respect the dead.
Around dinnertime, before or after the eating, there are usually games that are played. One notable one is Ssireum, which is essentially Korean wrestling. It happens between two people, and the winner is determined based on who can push the other one out of the ring. People also have archery competitions. However, this tradition is only for the men. The girls traditionally play much more childish games, and do not really do more active things. The most noticeable thing for girls in this holiday is a dance called the Ganggangsullae. The name has no meaning; it is just the phrase that follows the verse from the song that this is danced to. Essentially, the girls of the village will hold hands and dance around in a circle. They will wear their traditional Korean clothes called hanboks, and they will just circle around singing Ganggangsullae. With all of these festivities though, the people will simply enjoy their time together and get to know their families even better.
Seollal is the Korean New Years. It is also placed according to the lunar calendar. It changes dates quite often, but it is usually around January to February, in line with the Chinese New Years. This is the other big holiday in Korea where people will go back to visit their families from wherever it is that they may be staying. Another three day holiday is provided to the people so that they are able to do so.
The customs of Seollal are very similar to those of Chuseok. The family will again go back to the burial mounds of their ancestors and take care of them. They will snip away the weeds and make the grass growing on top of the mounds look presentable. They will talk to the dead ancestors and make their wishes for a good afterlife for them. They will also provide food set in the traditional manner for the dead as well.
The food of Seollal is very traditional. People will eat rice cake soup, which is usually prepared with meat, rice cake, egg, and seaweed. This recipe will vary regionally, but at the very least, the rice cake part will be included. According to Korean tradition, people turn gain a year at the new lunar calendar year. They are one when they are born, and become two when Seollal occurs. However, they only gain a year if they eat the rice cake soup. That is why every year, people at it so that they can gain a year of age.
Children will be very traditional and wear traditional clothes that are called hanboks. They will bow to their parents, grandparents, and elders. They will wish them blessing and a long life with the phrase “새해 복 많이 받으세요,” which means “I hope you receive many new blessings for the new year.” The bowing is very traditionalized, as the children will first get on their knees and then bow, putting their head to the floor. Then they will get back up on their knees, and then stand one again. As a reward for the children’s filial piety, they usually receive money in beautiful money pouches. Inside the money pouches are also contained sayings and phrases that are meant to instruct the children to live moral lives, but that has become less popular in the recent days.
Then everybody plays games. The girls will play on a seesaw. Rather than sitting on it, two girls will stand on the ends of it. One will jump, and then the other girl will be launched into the air. In falling back down, the first girl will be launched into the air. It is a very amusing game, and that is how they spend their time. The boys would play jegichagi, which is very much like hacky sack in America. Once that is done, everybody will play Yutnori together. Yutnori is a board game that involves throwing sticks. You move your pieces around the board in a circle to try and make it to the finish line. However, there are two teams. Each team takes turns throwing sticks, and depending on the way they land, you must move a certain distance. If the other team throws a number and lands on the exact same spot, then the first team’s piece is taken off the board and they must start over again. It is a race to finish, as each team usually has 4 pieces. If it is not racing to finish, then it is a race to catch the other team to make them start all over again. It is a friendly competition between family members, and usually the winning team will get a monetary reward.
These holidays are celebrated very differently in America than they are in Korea. In America it’s much more relaxed and less focused on the family. Knowing that this still exists in Korea is actually very meaningful. I had wanted to celebrate the holidays with my own family, and we do—but it is not as important to us as it is to them. In addition, this also seems to reflect the religious nature of Korean people. The idea of honoring the dead ancestors is a very Confucian ideal. Personally, my family does not celebrate that part of the holidays because we are Christian and we believe otherwise. I definitely respect these holidays for being such a unifying factor between families and even between Korean people as a whole.
This appears in a children’s book:
Miller, Jennifer A. South Korea. Minneapolis: Lerner, 2010. Print.