That's right, it's the holidays here in Korea! This week is Chuseok, the thanksgiving festival. Chuseok is a holiday of the lunar calendar and corresponds to the full moon, which means it is a date that shifts from year to year. This year it falls on Wednesday, but Tuesday and Thursday are also national holidays so that people can travel to be with their families. From what I've heard, Chuseok is all about giving thanks for a bountiful harvest, enjoying time with your family, and also honoring your ancestors and deceased relatives. I asked some of the Korean students here what they do for Chuseok. They said that back in the day, Koreans dressed up in the hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) and danced in a circle. They were very quick to reassure me that they didn't do that anymore, though. In modern times, it really is pretty similar to American Thanksgiving in the sense that people get together with their families and have a huge meal.
Speaking of which, Haejung-imo invited us over to her house today to have another cooking lesson and to share in the feast. She taught us to make chapche, which is a very tasty and colorful dish. You cook sweet potato noodles in boiling water, while meanwhile preparing onions, peppers, carrots, mushrooms, beef, and egg. Then you add all of those things together and season with salt, soy sauce, and sesame oil. We also had sukju namul and kong namul, which are vegetable dishes consisting of different kinds of sprouts. Then there was a dish made with silverfish (I forgot the Korean name), and pickles seasoned with sesame, and pork and kimchi stir-fried together. For dessert we ate hotteok, cakes with red bean filling, dried persimmons (they taste kind of like apricots, I think), and we drank red tea. I stuffed myself, and it was probably the most healthful holiday meal I've ever had, too. (Haejung-imo promises that if we keep eating Korean cooking, we will be a lot slimmer by the time we go home.) Another traditional Chuseok food that we had earlier in the week is seongpyon (I think that's right -- I still haven't figured out how to romanize Korean words), which is a small rice cake with filling inside (I like the kind with honey).
In other news, yesterday we took advantage of our time off from classes to visit the Daejeon National Cemetery. It's an enormous graveyard that also serves as a worship site, a war memorial, and a beautiful and peaceful natural preserve. Heads of state, soldiers, police, and other people who have made contributions to the country are buried there. Special ceremonies are held throughout the year to mark important dates, such as Memorial Day and the anniversary of the Korean War. They also have service projects where elementary school children come and tend the graves, cleaning them and leaving flowers, in order to teach them patriotism and respect for the country's fallen heroes.
We started our visit by driving down a road lined with many Korean flags -- only appropriate for a patriotic place. The cemetery grounds proper, i.e. the sites that are considered holy, are accessed by entering through the Red Gate. Past the Red Gate is the Fountain for National Defense (which for some reason was not fountaining!). This fountain is topped with a bronze statue of Koreans holding up the globe. The center of the fountain is a beautiful relief carving that, according to our guidebooks, features symbols of longevity.
Behind the fountain is the Memorial Tower, which commemorates the past, present, and future of the country, as well as being a monument to those patriots who have died and their achievements. The middle of the tower reaches up skyward, intricately decorated with bronze carvings, while at the base carved stone wings stretch out left and right. At the bottom of the tower a poem is engraved (I wish I could read it), and there is an elaborate incense burner for use during ceremonies. Inside the tower, there are memorial plaques for those soldiers MIA or KIA who were never retrieved, as well as a sepulcher for unidentified bodies. The tower also contains some very beautiful art, with guardian statues to watch over the dead. (Or so the guidebook tells me. We couldn't actually go in.) Even without anything going on there (it was a quiet day with very few visitors), the feel of the place, standing at the base of the tower, was overwhelming. It was, for me, a little like attending a Holy Week service, where breaking the reverent silence feels like sacrilege.
After that, we walked around the cemetery grounds to enjoy the natural beauty around us. Most of the cemetery is surrounded by mountains, so it is in its own peaceful little valley. The day was overcast (and sometimes rainy), but at points the sun emerged to light up the mountains. We hiked up a little ways into the hills to enjoy the view, strolled through the cemetery's bamboo forest, and stopped to admire the wildflower garden and the ponds.
We also visited the "future-oriented" Patriotism Hall. This building serves as a museum for teaching today's generation about the past, with a major focus on the Korean War. Unfortunately it was all in Korean, so I can't say that I learned much. Also unfortunately, we couldn't get into the Memorial Hall and Enshrinement Hall, where burials and religious rituals are held. We think maybe people are only allowed in there on official business.
I took many pictures of this very beautiful and awe-inspiring place. I hope to upload them soon and share them with all of you!
Next week, once the holidays are over, we move from this transitional period into actual work at our volunteer sites. Stay tuned to hear all about it!