Birthday Soups

Background: The informant (J) is the son of two Korean immigrants. He moved to a city on the west coast when he was two years old and grew up there, but he was born in Korea and spent many summers there with his family.

J: On new years you eat this soup called tteokguk. Basically the reason why is that you don’t age by your birthday, you age by the year. Which is why when you’re born you’re like already one year old technically. It’s just different in Korea, like you just age every new year instead of on your birthday. I don’t know exactly why you eat it but it just symbolizes how you’ve aged a year. So according to tradition if you didn’t eat tteokguk on new years then you wouldn’t age, like, as in you have to eat it so you can age.

Me: Do you guys celebrate the new year with the western calendar or lunar or something

J: Uh… I don’t really know but I think it’s the same as Chinese New Year.

Me: Oh that’s the lunar calendar then.

J: Oh also tteokguk is rice cake soup, it’s a pretty light soup. And there’s also another birthday food, it’s called seaweed soup. Or i mean it’s not called seaweed soup it just is seaweed soup

Me: Do you know what it’s called in Korean?

J: Miyuk guk.

Me: Why do you eat that for birthdays?

J: It’s supposed to symbolize all the hard work your mom goes through like, birthing you.

Me: Why does it symbolize that?

J: Cause like, it’s supposed to be like your mom ate the soup when she had you and was recovering, so you eating is supposed to be like you honoring that and remembering…if that makes sense

Me: Wait so do women always eat it while they’re recovering from giving birth? Is it like a healing type soup or something?

J: Uhhh I don’t know…I think they just eat it because it…goes down easy? Like you don’t really have to like…chew a lot cause it’s really light and it’s just seaweed and soup. It’s probably kind of…nutritious too I guess.

Me: Do you eat seaweed soup on your day of birth or also on the new year when you’re like…considered to have aged?

J: No, I eat it on my day of birth. Because we don’t age on our birthday but the soup symbolizes your actual birth and like..the…struggles…of your mom

Me: I assume that everyone eats the rice cake on new year since everyone ages at the same time but does everyone eat the seaweed soup or just the person whose birthday it is

J: No only the..birthday person. Like my mom would eat it on her birthday and my dad would eat it on his birthday.

Context: This was told to me and recorded during an in person interview.