One of the most widespread methods of becoming an expatriate these days is to be involved in teaching ESL (English as a second language). In South Korea, a nation of 48 million inhabitants, there are thousands of imports from Canada, Australia, and the U.S.A. working as foreigners in a foreign land. My wife and I became two of these expatriates teaching English to hundreds of Korean children in a private school in the small town of Yeoju, just south of Seoul. We faced the challenges of any new job – along with the added difficulties of being surrounded by very few understandable words and a smorgasbord of unfamiliar food.
When the second month of the school year rolled around, we had settled into a routine at work. As with any routine, we needed to focus on the days of the week and the months of the year. This highlighted the fact that even holidays on the calendar were atypical of our previous lives. As we got further into October, we knew our families would soon be having a Thanksgiving dinner without us. We were attached to our Canadian heritage, but willing to embrace the customs of the new culture around us. Any true traveller knows that it is ridiculous to resist.
By this time, we had tried numerous Korean dishes that we had never known existed – steaming bowls of bulgogi soup we enjoyed two or three times a week for lunch; numerous versions of kimchi made with cabbage, bean sprouts, cucumbers, and tofu served at every meal; marinated galbi short ribs. But we also found ourselves craving familiar meals from back home. We wondered how we could celebrate Thanksgiving so far away from those with whom we normally share it.
Our first step was to accept our expatriatism and substitute in a more immediate cultural celebration. In South Korea, Chuseok is comparable to Canadian Thanksgiving. It is one of the country’s most revered holidays, second only to Lunar New Year. The year we were in Korea, Canadian Thanksgiving and Chuseok fell ten days apart on the calendar, but instead of combining them, we honoured each separately. Just before the three-day holiday, our school celebrated Chuseok with a special activity day. Some of the students dressed in hanbok, which is the traditional Korean clothing worn for all special events, including weddings.
The food that most symbolizes Korean Thanksgiving are sweet, doughy treats called songpyeon. With the help of our Korean teaching partners, we spent the morning making them with the kindergarten classes by rolling up little pieces of rice dough, filling them with raisins, and folding them into half moon shapes. Traditionally, they are steamed with pine needles (“song” in Korean means “pine tree”) for a distinct aroma and taste, but that step was missing from our kindergarten recipe. The Korean teachers dropped them into a double boiler instead. While they cooked, we went for a walk with the students in a pagoda park near our school, enjoying the temperate autumn weather that resembled what we would have been experiencing back in our hometown 10,000 kilometres and thirteen hours away.
Back at the school, we really enjoyed the songpyeon. I’d had other versions with honey, walnuts, and sesame seeds inside that were a bit tastier than the raisins (but I didn‘t let the children who helped roll them know that). The students continued our culinary education by bringing out more of their favourite snacks: crab-flavoured chips, red bean paste in bread pockets, pink sugared seaweed, and the most unique Korean snack – candied octopus tentacles. The kids sucked on these rock-hard tentacles as if they were lollipops, but which in my eyes were simply dead fish that smelled repulsive, even if covered in sugar.
With this selection of morsels, our Korean teaching partners told us to facilitate a party in the classroom. We weren’t sure what a party in Korea was yet, but they seemed to be enjoying their food, so we laid out the remaining snacks and continued eating. Chuseok is held around the autumn equinox to celebrate the harvest; our spread may not have been the typical rice and vegetables harvested from the fields, but the meaning behind the ceremonial table setting was the same. With bags of shrimp crackers, boxes of Pepero sticks (thin, cylindrical wafers dipped
in chocolate), and cartons of banana milk spread across the desks we weren’t engaged in a formal dining experience, but eating together in groups is very important to Koreans – especially for Chuseok which is a celebration not only with those around you, but also those from your past. Our students told us that later on that weekend they would be partaking in rituals with their families by bringing meals to the gravesites of their ancestors. With earthenware containers of kimchi and bottles of soju (strong, rice wine), these meals are proof that eating is truly a communal activity with a cross-generational sharing between the living and the spirits of the dead. We had no ethnic ties to our students, but they were happy to engage in one of their favourite pastimes of sharing food.
Ten days later, we found ourselves approaching a holiday more recognizable. Canadian Thanksgiving did not register on any Korean agendas, but our cultural holidays were blending together into our own personal international calendar. We weren’t expecting it to be easy to find a turkey dinner in a country that doesn’t have the typical food sources to prepare such a meal, but there were a few familiar restaurants with westernized food in Seoul. We decided that a chain known as Movenpick Marché, that we knew from Toronto, would be our best chance to improvise a turkey dinner. We wandered around a buffet-style market and cobbled together an acceptable resemblance to Thanksgiving dinner – rotisserie chicken, squash, salad, and potato soup.
As outsiders participating in Chuseok, we were subjected to unfamiliar customs, unintelligible conversations, and unusual food, all grouped under the sometimes overwhelming condition of culture shock. But by uniting new cultural customs with those from our own heritage, we now had even more reasons to celebrate.