Sunday, May 20, 2007



When you marry a Korean, it's not just an individual you marry. You marry the culture, the traditions, the attitude and of course, you most definitely marry the family. So any private sense of relief which you can have as a foreigner for not having to go through conscription as all Korean men do, quickly dissipates when you realise that in fact you have been conscripted after all - conscripted into the framework of responsibilities and obligations which will ensure your life is never quite your own for as long as you are here.

It creeps up on you. If anyone published a book on what these obligations are then I never saw it, so you're flying blind from day to day until your orders come in, wrapped in and begun by the façade of a civilian 'by the way'. So this week's 'by the way' was that Sunday was the 49th day since Korean Grandmother had died, and our presence was requested and required in Namhae to attend a remembrance ceremony. My wife didn't know about this requirement either, so it seems I'm not the only one discovering things on a need to know basis only. Apparently the fiftieth day is the culmination of minor ceremonies held every seven days for seven weeks which are designed to ensure the deceased will be enlightened and then reborn as a good person in a good next life.

Exhausted by an insomnia driven week behind me, and agitated by a sudden - if minor - Meniere's attack in bed at midnight, I arose at 0440 hours and by 0540 we were on our way to catch our 0620 bus. The roads were quiet, and some Korean girls with very short skirts stumbled around the road Shaun of the Dead style suggesting that they were still trying to find their way home from the night before. There were no men - they having presumably drunk themselves into oblivion many hours earlier. Our taxi was Warp 9 capable and violently bounced along at 100mph down a poorly constructed major highway which was never designed for anything above half this speed. At 0556 we took off and left the road momentarily, the wheels skidding like a plane landing as we reconnected with the tarmac beneath us. It was just like a Hollywood movie, the only thing missing was the sound of the siren behind us.

The bus to Namhae wasn't much better, but at least the driver appeared to have no aspirations towards obtaining his pilots licence that morning. I'd taken my anti-nausea tablet, my wife hadn't, and ironically it was her that was almost throwing up by the end of our journey.

It wasn't long before we were at the temple - or one building of it at least, and a new and seemingly expensively finished one which still smelt of fresh wood. I also couldn't help noticing that we were the only grandchildren in attendance. It seems we are the oldest grandchildren which carries additional responsibility, and I think it's politics too. Even Korean Brother didn't attend. He's still working away, AWOL and I'm not sure he even knows about the death yet. So our peers got a free weekend pass, we didn't, and a whole new generation of rivalries was created.

The remembrance ceremony had been billed as a 'one-hour service'. A monk chanted, and it was calming. I have CDs of this stuff back home, now I had a live performance. An hour passed and I was OK, after ninety minutes boredom started to creep in and after two-and-a-half hours I'd decided to move to Canada. Booklets had the versus written down and at various points some audience participation was directed, and some mumbling could be heard. But the chants were in Chinese - albeit transcribed into Korean - so nobody knew what they were chanting for.

Somewhere along the way we'd burned incense sticks twice, done a couple of dozen big bows to the monk and makeshift shrine, where we also left offerings. Protocol dictates no photos inside of course, SOP. Afterwards, a procession led us up to a place where the paper flowers from the shrine were taken to be burned, along with some clothes.

We ate lunch in a nearby temple building before embarking on the next stage of our journey - up the very narrow concrete mountain road to the cemetery where Korean Grandmother was buried.

More big bows to Korean Grandmother - and Great Grandmother's graves were performed, and then it was back to the house. The senior officers were staying longer but this is where the junior ranks were demobbed for the day, so one of the Korean uncles gave us a ride to the station.

And what a ride it was. It turned out there was a reason why, just before leaving, Korean Father had urgently said "don't sit in the front". Suffice it to say, from here on, said uncle will be known as Uncle Road Rage. As we raced - the operative word - towards our possibly final destination, a succession of Western pop songs played from the radio. Between the speed and the hip-hop blasting from the speakers it occurred to me that all we needed were the guns and it was just like being back home. I also realised what had been bothering me up to that point was that this was the first time I'd heard Western chart music for over seven months. The Internet can keep you connected in certain ways, but you do miss out on other things perhaps without even realising.

It's not that Namhae is a terrible place, in fact it probably has a lot going for it if you want to get away from the chaos of the city and connect with a more peaceful community living more in balance with nature, but it's what it represents that I can't reconcile. When my grandfather died back home there was a funeral and generously, it took a morning. Maybe that's not enough, but Korean Grandmother's funeral has consumed three days - and that's the 'lite' version - the senior ranks have done much more. That's too much for something I married into. If that's harsh then yes I admit I'm not cut out for all these family responsibilities of death, life, festivals and ceremonies and I desperately need to feel I'm not always on duty. But Federer beat Nadal on clay for the first time in two years and my tennis-obsessed wife thinks that this is grandmother's reward for attending, so at least she got something out of it.

1600. Back at HQ. Awaiting further orders. Out.


Anonymous said...

Look at the bright side, you get to have ceremonies for grandmother for the next three years.
When my father inlaw died, there was a series of ceremonies at temples, etc. And they just kept coming! They are finally over, five years on mind you.

Mike said...

I've told my Korean parents that I'm personally taking charge of the management of their health. No more putting off going to the hospital for their aches and pains, and they have to stick to their prescribed diets. Otherwise I'm going to nag and nag, Because I just can't face going though the whole funeral ritual thing again.

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