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Chuseok, Korea's harvest celebration and one of the two biggest holidays of the year, is the season to give thanks for what you have and offer up your respects to your ancestors. It is synonymous with big family gatherings, hearty meals, exchanges of presents and the full moon. It is when the biggest mobilization of the population takes place, when family members partake in ancestor memorial rites, when housewives work endless hours in the kitchen, and when department stores reap big profits at the registers.

For foreigners living in Korea, Chuseok is a welcome break after a long, muggy summer. The JoongAng Ilbo English Edition asked a few expatriates about their past Chuseok experiences and what they look forward to for this year's celebrations. Some enjoy participating in national festivities, some observe from afar, and some wander the empty streets of Seoul.

Also, we take a look at some of the key traditional customs that distinguish the harvest moon holiday season.


He remembers when life stopped during Chuseok; now he has become fully engaged in the holiday.

This is the third Chuseok holiday that John McDonald will spend with his wife Hee-kyung's family in Gwangju, South Jeolla province. Though he has been married just over two years, he has attended the Chuseok festivities with his in-laws since before they were his in-laws, when he was still courting his wife.

"My in-laws have completely embraced me into the family," Mr. McDonald explains. "I even go to the ancestor burial sites to bow and participate in the ceremonies during Chuseok. I have no problems whatsoever with the memorial rites because I respect and accept this cultural aspect."

A native of Alberta, Canada, and now a professor of English at Dongshin University in Naju, South Jeolla province, Mr. McDonald came to Korea seven years ago as a "wandering soul" in search of novelty. He first taught at private English institutes in Gwangju and later lectured at local universities.

"I remember my first Chuseok six years ago," he says. "All the stores were closed and the streets were dead quiet."

But marriage changed all that. Now he feasts with his in-laws in the traditional Korean way. "Although their preparations for Chuseok are never extravagant," he says, "we do eat a lot of galbi, deungsim and bulgogi, which are among my favorite dishes." He says that while his wife does not usually spend long hours in the kitchen at home, she helps out a lot when she's at her parents' house.

Mr. McDonald sympathizes with Korean women for all the work they have to do during Chuseok, but says it's not so different back home. "Women in Canada do a lot of cooking to prepare for Thanksgiving as well," he says. In that spirit, last Christmas he cooked a turkey dinner for his in-laws.

Fortunately, Mr. McDonald has a healthy relationship with his in-laws; he visits them at least once a week. When he works late, his mother-in-law sends food to the university so that he will not go hungry. "I am part of the family," he says.


He's gone to Jeju; he's climbed rocks; this year he'll do the holiday from behind the lens of a video camera.

When half the nation is literally on the move, heading to their hometowns, the big cities can seem like ghost towns.

When millions of people will be leaving Seoul and enduring long hours in traffic jams to eventually see their relatives, Bob Gardiner looks for ways to take advantage of the light traffic.

A 34-year-old Canadian from British Columbia, Mr. Gardiner writes and directs English-language plays and musicals for children. His first Chuseok experience was in 1995, when he and a few English teachers went to Jeju Island. "We had a great time there," he says. "There was absolutely no one on the whole island; it was the perfect time to go."

On his second Chuseok, in 1996, Mr. Gardiner went to Seoul's Mount Bukhan with a friend to do some rock climbing. On the way back they ate at an old cafe in the area, where they enjoyed drinking with other diners.

This year, he says he will take his new digital video camera on an adventure to the outer limits -- of Seoul's subway system. He plans to get on a train and take it to the end of the line, then engage in some improvised amateur filmmaking, then choose another line and do it again. "I'll probably wind up in drinking joints," he says.

Chuseok is a time when you can see how seriously Koreans take their culture and their families, Mr. Gardiner says: "Seeing Jongno [downtown Seoul] on a typical weekend and then seeing it during Chuseok shows you how this country can really go to extremes."

Reflecting on Canada's Thanksgiving holiday, the Western equivalent of Chuseok, Mr. Gardiner says that the original meaning of the holiday has faded, and many Canadians treat it as just another holiday, a day off from work or school. By contrast, he says, the focus of Chuseok is still on the family. "I've got the impression that Chuseok is a very family-oriented event," he says. "Back home, we invite friends to our house for Thanksgiving; you wouldn't do that here."


Married to a Korean man, she spends the holiday with his family; but they don't let her near the stove.

Fe Santiago, 44, still remembers being baffled by the money she got on her first Chuseok, back in 1997. "I was given a total of 140,000 won [$115] that day but I did not know why my relatives were giving me money," says Ms. Santiago, who came to Korea in 1996 from the Philippines to join her husband Kim Sung-jin, 46. The two had met in 1994 in Davao City, Mindanao, and were married there two years later.

Ms. Santiago is now familiar enough with Korean customs to know that relatives often give money on Chuseok rather than gifts. She and her husband, who live in Incheon, go down to Mr. Kim's hometown of Chungju in North Chungcheong province, where Mr. Kim's 83-year-old father lives with his oldest son.

Like for most families, Chuseok is a time for the extended Kim kin to get together. "My husband is the eighth out of 10 children," Ms. Santiago says. "About 40 members of his family get together for Chuseok. The men watch TV and the women talk and laugh in the kitchen."

Ms. Santiago is in charge of washing the vegetables and doing the dishes, while her sisters-in-law do the cooking. "They do not trust me with the cooking," she says.

Ms. Santiago accepts the local Chuseok traditions, in which the women prepare the food that is put on the altar made to honor your ancestors, but the men do the bowing to the ancestors. "I respect Korean culture; I have no problems with that," she says. In fact, paying respect to the dead is familiar for Ms. Santiago.

"The first and second of November are All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day in the Philippines. That is when we honor our ancestors and visit their graves," she explains. The visit to the grave is followed by a big family meal, according to Ms. Santiago who comes from a family of five sons and five daughters. It strikes Ms. Santiago as odd that Koreans bury their dead on mountains, away from the city: "Public cemeteries in the Philippines are located in town."


Tying one on

On traditional festive holidays such as Chuseok, Koreans dress up with hanbok for ancestor-worship services and to greet their elders. The exotic hanbok may instantly ring out "Korea," but it's a complicated bit of clothing.

The most difficult part of putting on the hanbok is tying the goreum, the traditional and complicated string ties on the breast of both men's and women's hanbok coats.

Another hard part is tying the daenim, the traditional string that secures the hem of men's pants. If you need to figure out how to fasten these tricky ties, read on.

If you are a woman, first put on the underpants and petticoat, which is 2 to 3 centimeters shorter than the skirt. Then put on the skirt that covers the chest. The right edge of your skirt should be on the left edge of your skirt so that you can pull the right edge of your skirt with your left hand. And then put on beoseon, the traditional socks that are white with their recognizable stripe. Then put on the short coat and tie the goreum on the coat.

If you are a man, put on the pants first and then put on coat, which is far longer than the women's coat, and then tie the goreum on the coat. And then put on the beoseon and then tie the daenim. You have to put on a vest and another coat, called the magoja, over your first coat. It is simply not done for a man to wear only one coat, even in the house. It would be like wearing only your underwear. And while for many that is their remembrance of Western Thanksgiving with the family, it's still outre here.

Both men and women wear a durumagi, a traditional long overcoat, when they go out.


A successful meal means everything is in its proper place

To many Korean families, charye, the worship service for family ancestors, is the highlight of Chuseok. On Chuseok morning, the family members set the table with the year's new fruits and the foods made of the year's new crops to thank their ancestors for the successful harvest.

The delicious-looking foods in a multitude of colors on the charye table are tempting, but if you touch them, you will be scolded by your elders most harshly. You have to offer the foods to your ancestors first.

You have to put the ancestors' tablets to the north of the table, light the candles on the northeast and the northwest parts of the table, and burn incense on the small table to the south of the charye table. Then you have to offer a clear alcoholic drink to your ancestors -- one glass for each ancestor -- by taking the glass, drawing a circle in the air with it and then putting it on the charye table. And then you have to bow twice.

But don't worry. Deceased ancestors will not take away the foods while you are bowing. After finishing the rite, you will enjoy the essence of Korean traditional foods from the charye table.

The charye table includes a wide variety of foods and recipes. The most important one is songpyeon, half-moon-shaped rice cakes steamed on a layer of pine needles. "Songpyeon that goes on the charye table must be made of new rice," says Yoon Sook-ja, the director of the Traditional Korean Food, a research institute. "The subtle perfume of the pine needles from the rice cakes makes it special." On the Chuseok charye table, songpyeon replaces the rice and soup, which are never missing at ordinary ancestor-memorial rites.

Where all the plates and foods go on the charye table is fixed under traditional rules, although the rules are a little different according to family and region. The charye table should face north and the family members have to stand to the south of the table. And the foods should be placed in five rows. The row near the southern end is called the first row, while the row near the northern end is the fifth.

"The number of dishes in each row is not fixed," Ms. Yoon says. "But there has to be an odd number of dishes in a row because odd numbers are thought to be auspicious in Eastern culture."

In the first row, the year's new fruits and traditional confectioneries, such as yakgwa (fried honey cakes), are placed. The fruits have to include the big four ?pears, chestnuts, jujubes and persimmons ?but there are no requirements on the sorts of confectioneries.

In the second row, dried meat or fish, herb salads, soy sauce, kimchi and sikhye (a sweet drink made from fermented rice), are placed. "It is important to remember that you have to put the rice grains in sikhye without liquid on the charye table," Ms. Yoon says.

In the third row, meat soup, vegetable soup or bean curd soup and fish soup are placed.

In the fourth row, noodles, roasted meat, fried vegetables or bean curd, roasted fish and flat rice cakes are placed. On the fifth row, the bowls of songpyeon, one for each ancestor, are placed.

by Choi Jie-ho, Kim Hoo-ran, Brian Lee, Moon So-young

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