July 4, Ancestral Rites

The weekend was wild, and certainly not how I’d imagine I’d be spending America’s independence.

I drove to my friend Rachel’s house in Gimhae to hang out and celebrate her “housewarming”. Her house isn’t new, but her family was able to buy the unit on the first floor and now the whole villa is theirs. I’ve never seen lodging of that size in Korea– the first floor has three bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. Upstairs there is also a kitchen, a living room, and a bedroom.

I had planned to buy her an acceptable Korean housewarming gift which is traditionally laundry detergent or toilet paper. Historically these things were expensive, and also held a secondary meaning: the many bubbles of detergent symbolize growing prosperity while the endless roll of toilet paper promises long life.

The local mart only carried toilet paper in ridiculous Costco-sized packs of 30 or more so I quickly searched for a modern alternative. “Dish soap and paper towels are also acceptable”. Okay, paper towels it is! An easy three pack. I bought a cake from the local bakery whose owner definitely knows who I am and headed over.

She made me pasta and did my nails and we just hung out chatting in Korean. My brain didn’t feel squeezed like the last time I visited her, which signals some small modicum of progress. The day felt like the warm memories of high school, until she proposed another activity.

“Do you want to see 제사?”

“Of course!!!!” I will never pass up an opportunity, and how many times will I actually see a family do ancestral rites?

And so her mom, her unfairly good looking father, and I rode in her car to her uncle’s house. Funny enough, I’ve already been to her uncle’s house, so half the family knows who I am. I finally saw her cousin Gabi again, and met his mysterious younger brother.

We all sat on the floor of the empty but cozy living room which I am only realizing now, many days later, would be very strange to the American eye. What, no couch?

There were a few more additional aunties, and the ones who knew me commented that I had lost weight. “Your face is smaller!”

Everyone keeps saying that, maybe the constant mask wearing has just squeezed my head into a narrower shape.

I lounged on the floor, messing with Gabi and trying to kick his phone out of hand with my foot while his younger brother said very little.

I decided to amend that.

“So, what’s your name?”

“I’m Ingi,” he started, then suddenly switching to English and pointing to Gabi said, “his young brother.” Rachel scoffed at him while Gabi corrected immediately, “it’s ‘younger’ brother.”

I ignored this and soldiered on in Korean. If the rest of my friend’s extended family could understand me and vice versa, I would make Ingi talk.

“How old are you?” I asked, the representative Korean question. Culturally, it’s okay since the level of politeness you use with someone depends on your age differential.

“29,” he answered in English.

I paused and asked in Korean, “why… English all of a sudden…?”

“Because I want to practice.”

Well, Ingi, I’m the only one having a conversation here so I don’t know how much practice you’re getting! I gave up on him and turned to the young woman past his shoulder.

She told me her name and I complimented her dress, which immediately made her shy. She clearly felt a little uncomfortable in her boyfriend’s home while I, the unruly foreigner, felt no such qualms. That’s the thing, though, about being a foreigner. I have the opportunity and the curse to straddle the line– I am not Korean and will never be thought of as Korean, but on the flip side, I don’t have to live up to Korean expectations. She hung around the corner of the kitchen trying to be useful, a feeling I know deep down in my core is a woman’s universal experience.

I helped out as best I could too, but sat down when the aunties told me to sit. There’s no one I’m trying to impress!

Finally, around ten, a short polished wooden table was drug out of the master bedroom and set up in the middle of the living room. The aunties suddenly exploded in activity like an anthill that had been kicked over and the table was loaded with more food than 20 people could eat. The uncle brought out a colorized photo of a woman in hanbok, clearly from decades ago, and a framed photo of an old man in a suit. He leaned each frame against the TV so that the two could look over the table. Rice and chopsticks were placed in front of them and incense was lit.

Gabi, Ingi, and the uncle began the kow towing process. Women don’t bow but instead make the food.

Rachel, her mom and dad, all the aunties, and I sat in the kitchen. There was more bowing, and then the brothers disappeared while only the uncle bowed. Everyone in the kitchen kept whispering away until the uncle, changed into a white get up that screamed “Miami Vice” more than “memorial service, shouted at everyone to be quiet.

Rachel’s dad, not the blood relative, and the aunties tittered at his abruptness, and not five minutes later a pop rock ringtone cut through the silence.

We all burst into silent laughter while the uncle stared daggers at us.

And then, a few more bows later, the uncle’s phone rang. This time, he answered it. A business call? Who knows.

Many long minutes later, the ceremony was abruptly over and there was a rush to move all the food from the decorative bowls to plates so that we could feast. The aunties encouraged me to eat more and the uncles let me drink soju, which led to an impromptu sleepover at Rachel’s house.

It was the kind of accidental extended weekend I love the most, even if my digestive tract had a hangover from plates and plates of lovingly made Korean food.

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