Seoul Global Center helps expats learn all about the Lunar New Year

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Seoul Global Center helps expats learn all about the Lunar New Year


Two expats practice the tradition of saebae, learning how to bow respectfully to elders, at the Lunar New Year Event held on Tuesday at the Seoul Global Center. By Park Sang-moon

With the Lunar New Year holidays, or Seollal, under way in Korea, many newcomers to the country can feel left out or even stranded. We can see that the stores are closed and that everyone is spending time with their families, but what is Seollal all about?

To introduce expats to Seollal and its associated traditions, the Seoul Global Center held a special event on Tuesday that featured music, games and food. As I arrived at the celebration, a swarm of people dressed in vibrant colors greeted me. A corner of the room was filled with racks of traditional Korean clothing, or hanbok, and locals were on hand to ensure we wore the outfits correctly. The walls were covered with different flags, symbolic of the inclusive nature of the event.

A small band, also dressed in dashing colors and headwear, welcomed us with traditional Korean folk music. The band members, with huge drums slung over their right shoulders, snaked and weaved in circles in the center of the room. The music transitioned from joyful to suspenseful, and from quick to slow, as the audience of around 150 to 200 people watched the performance.

After welcoming speeches, a “true or false” pop quiz tested my limited knowledge of the Korean New Year celebrations. “The symbol of New Year’s Day is the sparrow,” the host called out. I thought perhaps that could be true, though I hadn’t seen many birds since I arrived in Korea. “False. It is the magpie.” Next, we were asked if it was true or false that New Year’s Day was made a national holiday in 1985. True, apparently.

A series of traditional games ensued, along with classes in how to make dumplings and lessons on how to bow respectfully. Expats and visitors wandered around the room, trying their luck at jegichagi, a game that involves using your feet to keep a small pouch off the ground. I only managed to hit it about twice before it hit the floor, but I watched with the crowd as one woman lightly kicked the pouch at least 10 times.

During the festivities, I met fellow foreigners like Abner Ramos, a 31-year-old English teacher from Puerto Rico. He “wanted to experience as much of Korean culture as possible” while on winter break from his teaching duties. “I’ve learned a lot about the hanbok culture, the rituals, the ceremonies and their meals so far. It’s been great,” he told me.

I watched on as a young woman, Anna Pozhidaeva, was taught saebae, the traditional bow to greet elders. Pozhidaeva, a 24-year-old from Russia, later told me she was studying film in Korea and came to the event to see how Koreans celebrated the New Year. “Usually these days in Korea are kind of boring for foreigners because everything is closed and Koreans go home for celebrations. And we don’t really have something special to do,” she said.

While bowing, we were taught that women must have their right hand placed lightly on top of their left. Then we were told to slowly move one’s knees to the ground, keeping the elbows bent and in front of the body. Finally, the head is placed on the ground, toward the elders.

“While you’re doing it, you feel really respectful. It’s not as difficult as I thought,” Pozhidaeva said.

Seabae was one of many things in the room that was entirely new and different to me. Growing up in Australia, apart from a friendly hug and perhaps a kiss on the cheek, there is no traditional way to respectfully greet our elders.

The man Pozhidaeva was bowing in front of was Steven McKinney, head of the Seoul Global Center. I asked McKinney why the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the center had created the event. “This has been put on to help foreigners to understand about Korean culture and Seollal, to understand what it’s all about and to enjoy it and participate,” he said. “Those of us who have been here a long time know it, but for others, it’s a new thing.”

McKinney was right - it was a new thing. I hadn’t folded a dumpling before or played tuho, a game where players throw slim, arrow-like sticks into a narrow canister. After a lunch of rice cake soup and makgeolli - Korean rice beer - people slowly left the celebration and returned to their day-to-day lives. But they did so with a better understanding of why and how our Korean friends celebrate the Lunar New Year.

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