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☞ Issue 157
글씨크기 크게 글씨크기 작게 기사 메일전송 기사 출력
Tae Guk Gi and Stars & Stripes (6)

Melissa Hahn (2010/01/20 14:24)  

Family on Christmas 2 (Dec 1983)

Christmas and the Gregorian New Year have passed, and the Lunar New Year is still nearly a month away. We are in January, that coldest and most bitter month, sandwiched between international holidays with nothing to celebrate. In many parts of Asia, it is almost time to dazzle the squares with lanterns and to stuff envelopes with crisp bills. In Arizona, people are packing away the last of their holiday decorations and are already forgetting their resolutions.

For Korean Americans fortunate enough to celebrate both holidays, it is a time to catch one’s breath. Christmas has been celebrated on the Korean side of my husband’s family for generations, because his ancestors from Taegu converted to Catholicism nearly a century ago. When his mother married a Catholic American thirty years ago, the importance of Christmas in the family calendar was permanently established. Having worked previously at an officer’s club on an American military base, my mother-in-law was already well-acquainted with American holiday culinary and musical traditions well before my husband Mike was born, and she eagerly reproduced many of these customs throughout his childhood.

Every December, old-fashioned Christmas carols, especially Perry Como and Bing Crosby, wafted down the hall. Lights were strung, the tree was decorated, little musical bells were hung, a ceramic New England village was set up, the toy train looped around the wrapped gifts lying beneath the branches and an artificial candle was illuminated. Stockings dangled from the mantle, and the nativity was displayed. As a young boy living in Taegu and then Pusan, Mike whispered his wish list in Santa’s ear and partook in school holiday concerts replete with classic American and European carols. One of his all-time favorite songs is still “Silver Bells.”

Perfectly American, incongruously set in a tidy Korean apartment. And yet, when I investigate old photos, a more complex story emerges. In one, a low circular table is set in the living room, right in front of the decorated tree and chiming bells. Sitting on the floor with legs crossed, some family members are dressed in traditional hanbok right alongside others wearing dress slacks and sweater vests.

December 2001, Mikey, Mom, Emo and Grandmother

In another, Christmas dinner includes not only roasted turkey but also japchae noodles and a smattering of banchan side dishes from jeon pancakes to namul steamed vegetables. Yet another photo shows a fantastic spread including gimbap, steamed chestnuts and American sandwich cookies.

Without even trying, Mike was constantly exposed to both worlds. His childhood was a balance of each culture, a gentle quilt in which squares representing both heritages were proudly and comfortably represented. Politics, imperialism, and identity crises never entered his mind: he could be fully Korean with a mother who fed him rice cake soup and fully American with a father responsible for overseeing storage on a US military base. Simply by walking into the family sitting area he could observe his father watching American football and his halmonee speaking in Korean to his mother and aunt. Playing with his trucks or practicing the piano, he sat among lightweight black-lacquered shelves and cabinets inlayed with ornate, traditional, mother-of-pearl designs.

The blended dynamic similarly prevailed at school, where he traced the outline of his hand to make a turkey for Thanksgiving and beamed with pride when his mother helped prepare dishes for his school’s celebration of one of the most important Korean holidays, Chuseok.

Today as an adult, he sees that this quilt was a child’s blanket that didn’t grow with him. Strained by the past nearly twenty years spent in America, his knowledge and familiarity with Korean culture have become patchy and threadbare. He knows the mechanics of how to use chopsticks, to speak deferentially to his elders, and to remove his shoes before entering a home, but he’s lost his cultural fluency along with his language. Thanks to the Korean Wave, he can purchase CDs by Rain and BoA, films featuring Song Kang-Ho and Jun Ji-Hyun and television series from KBS and MBC. Yet when it comes to the ancient fabric of his culture, especially the traditional holidays linking him back to his peninsula, he is utterly lost.

So this year, like every year, the approach of Seolla, the Lunar New Year, is bittersweet. Like Chuseok in the fall, we celebrate it in half-measures, with earnest but halting attempts to reconstruct a new quilt to replace the old. My husband who so desperately wishes to participate in- and therefore reclaim- a piece of his lost heritage is reduced to looking up Korean holidays on his Google Agenda. Lacking the reinforcement of yearly training on how to celebrate these holidays, he does not know how to mark them authentically.

In any case, such important family and community holidays are hopelessly empty if reconstructed only on the level of one household. Discouraged from participating in the delivery of the traditional New Year’s message to his mother because because they now only speak in English together and it would feel put-on, he has never participated in seebae, one of the most important acts of filial piety. Since his family no longer wears the hanbok even for traditional feasts, he has never had the opportunity to don one as an adult. Isolated in a bedroom community apartment complex in suburban Phoenix, there is nowhere to observe anyone playing traditional games such as yutnori or jegi chagi, nobody with whom to fly colorful kites. Like its fall harvest counterpart, the lunar New Year celebration has become invisible and indistinguishable from an ordinary day.

February 8, 2009, Chinese New Year - Pagoda

For his mother, it is simple: we are in America, so we should celebrate American holidays. I cannot blame her, really. It is much simpler this way, and a lot less expensive. It is hard work to prepare all of the fancy dishes, and as she gets older the work is more difficult. Trying so hard not to be an oppressive or domineering mother-in-law, she does not expect me to help prepare the dishes, or even to learn. And with Mike’s American father having less and less interest in “foreign” foods as he ages, there would be very few mouths to feed after a long day in the kitchen.

Yet by shielding us, she blocks us from the wonderful opportunity to learn. For us, the concern that Mike’s Korean heritage be passed on to our future children is real. If we do not know how to celebrate these holidays now, we feel we must learn so that we can impart the knowledge upon them someday. The alternative, that our ties to his culture be lost forever, is always hanging over us like a cloud.

So we persevere, even if our methods are flawed and not completely fulfilling. As in previous years, we will take in the festivities held at the nearby Chinese Cultural Center. There are no girls jumping on seesaws, top spinning or other games. Instead, we are treated to acrobats, dragon-pearl dances and the sweet smell of Szechuan chicken. It’s not Korean in the least, but somehow, we try to comfort ourselves that at least we are celebrating the holiday – at least we are present. Perhaps someday, with small steps and sincere hearts, we will arrive at our destination: something not entirely Korean, and not entirely American, but a new tapestry which delicately and more evenly weaves the two realms together.
Author's career and profile

I was born in 1982 and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, I had a strong interest in learning about the many cultures of the world as a very young child. One of my prize possessions was my very first globe, and I would practice the names of these places as I fell asleep at night. In high school, I studied French, and through a special distinguished scholar program I designed an honors project which enabled elementary school children to participate in several festivals from around the world. I received a B.A. in Russian Area Studies from St. Olaf College, in Minnesota, and have completed graduate coursework at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland towards an M.A. in Central European Studies. I have also written numerous articles for the political website,, on topics covering Central Europe and Asia. I am currently involved in children's literature and photography projects, with the aim of writing meaningful books to engage children with the world around them in hopes of promoting peace and understanding. I have backpacked across Europe three times, covering twenty countries. I hope to visit Korea very soon!

U.S.-DPRK Relation

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