Monday, February 19, 2007

Neoneun dal naneun hae

새해 복 많이 받으세요! ('Wishing you good fortune in the new year' - with a 'big bow').

Yesterday was Lunar New Year, and the one day of the year you don't want to start with a headache. So, the first order of business today was a special New Year's Breakfast with Korean Mother at her apartment. My migraine (no, I hadn't been drinking the day before) was so bad that I had little appetite after the big bows (on hands and knees, head touching the floor) to Korean Mother (really helped the headache that) and gifts of money (it turned out we got some too), I struggled through the special rice soup, the same dish we'd had for the calendar new year seven weeks ago. It's a bit odd celebrating a new year twice in such a short space of time. Apparently it's at the point you eat the dish that you age one year in Korean years, so probably my Korean age only advanced by a quarter this year. For dessert, I spent time in the bathroom trying to throw up, although this is not considered a formal part of the tradition.

Despite this, the three of us kept to our plan to hike up one of the nearby mountains together with Psychic Aunt (who'd arrived requiring more big bows) to a temple where offerings could be made to Buddha and prayers made for good fortune in the new year. On the way we walked through one quiet street after another with their closed shops, even the six-lane global warming highway that I laughingly merely call the 'main road' through our district was almost deserted enough to cross without resorting to using the subway. Almost. A number of Koreans walked around in traditional costume on their way to see relatives.

In the end when we got to the temple I didn't make any requests for the FTSE to go down because just prior to the prayers I burnt one of my fingers on an incense stick so I took the hint. Inside the temple (no photos of course) were lots of offerings of fruit, some fish, and a couple of large bags of rice. There was a small shrine outside where some fruit and other food again had been left. Somewhere behind a glass window were a few rows of prayers stacked up, one of which was left by Korean Mother for myself and my wife about a year ago.

We climbed further up the mountain where there were three more shrines with more of the same offerings, but with opened (but otherwise untouched) bottles of soju added. A large fly was floating upside down at the top of one of them. What a way to go. I guess it will be reborn as something better in the next life. Piles of salt had been placed at the side of the path from time to time to prevent the entry of evil spirits to the shrines.

After lunch we went over to Psychic Aunt's place of business, which was down the narrowest street I've seen in Busan, apparently one which has many fortune tellers. Two piles of salt sat either side of the door, and inside was a shrine with a variety of offerings. We'd gone there to have our fortunes read, a process which involves channelling spirits, and which started out with the most beautiful session of Buddhist chanting I think I've ever heard, which I found myself really wishing I had as an MP3. I can only describe what followed as an emotional roller-coaster but as for much of what was said, I'm afraid that much like what the thinking is behind US foreign policy, it will have to remain a mystery.

As for me, just to be a little disconcerting, the first thing she told me was that I'd been having breathing problems, which only Korean Mother knew, but she hadn't told her and since I've been better for over two weeks couldn't have been guessed at otherwise today. Other than that, she made a couple of predictions I have mixed feelings about but I'm afraid the proofs of these will come in two to three years. People take these things very seriously and while I respect them I remain somewhat agnostic; I don't really like the idea that my fate lies beyond my control even though I've suspected for some time now that it is. It's that old free will versus fate question again.

When I got back to Korean Mother's apartment I tried to sleep off my headache on the couch for an hour, foregoing the chance to watch True Lies on one of the Korean movie channels. I was awoken due to the impending arrival of Shipman Uncle (guess what he used to do) and Preacher Uncle complete with wives and children in tow. Before long, ten people had burst through the door and there was an extended round of bowing from juniors to elders. Despite my apparent rapid ageing the children didn't have to bow to us though as it doesn't work like that. A lot of food followed, and more than enough religious discussion.

Preacher Uncle offered the fascinating insight that while he celebrated the Lunar New Year, as a Christian he did it in a religious way, although I was left wanting for what he thought the alternative was; perhaps surprisingly Korea has not commercially raped the festival in the same way Christmas has been by companies in the West. It did leave me wondering whether other Christians were similarly reticent about it, and whether this might explain why although most of the shops were shut, it wasn't quite all of them.

We'd left in the morning at 10am and didn't get home until 11pm. It was a long day. Today is also a public holiday, though not one this time with formal requirements, but unfortunately for us while the US is coincidentally closed for Presidents' Day, the UK is not, so we're already back at our desks working.

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