Friday, February 19, 2010

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Korea's Lunar New Year holiday ('설날') occurred over the weekend. It's a time of year that involves families gathering together, and all the inevitable responsibilities that go along with this, both subtle and overt. This year it clashed with Valentine's Day, leaving people with a choice of which to celebrate. With family being so important the New Year invariably won, although once again, ever-evasive Korean Brother managed to avoid any such obligations. As the eldest in her family, and with both parents having passed away many years ago, it is Korean Mother's responsibility to host to her young siblings for New Year's meals, and it's not an event without its tensions; with a sister who works as a Buddhist psychic and a brother who works as a Christian pastor, they are a microcosm of the religious differences which can sometimes bubble away uneasily in Korean society.

Pastor Uncle stipulated that he would only eat food which hadn't been in any way involved in any kind of Buddhist blessings or rituals, which theoretically required Korean Mother to spend the whole day preparing the dishes for the meal. This was unfortunate because Korean Mother was extremely tired having just returned from two days of New Year family duties in Namhae, and Psychic Aunt provides a steady supply of religiously-tainted food and dishes to our apartment. Thus a moral dilemma was created of whether to pander to someone's religious objections - or take the easy path of claiming an incorrect provenance. I was not keen on the latter but my limited experience in the murky world of Korean religion is that neither faction necessarily affords the other much reverence.

Korean Mother and Psychic Aunt wanted Makgeolli ('막걸리') - Korean rice wine whose popularity is rocketing - to drink with their meal, and phoned Pastor Uncle to ask him to buy some on his way to the apartment with his family. He was completely taken aback - he couldn't possibly be seen by his children buying alcohol (despite the fact that Jesus was well known drinker). Perhaps he's one of these people who've made up their own version of the Bible. So the two Buddhists had to go out and buy their own booze.

When Pastor Uncle arrived, our borderline-insane dog tried his best to feign a case of rabies and scare him into leaving. But Pastor Uncle had evidently been drinking the Biblical Kool-Aid and persisted in holding out his hand repeating "I love you, I love you", in English - oddly enough; our dog doesn't speak English nor does he have the gift of tongues. As usual, almost all the hospitals were closed for the holiday, so it wasn't clear where Pastor Uncle intended to have his finger sewn back on, but perhaps he felt that God would provide. He explained that the power of love could conquer any animal, which makes one wonder how these missionaries keep getting themselves killed overseas.

His children performed their 'big bows' to Korean Mother - a ritual at this time of year. It's extremely important partly because it confers respect on ones' elders, and affords them a formal opportunity to impart wisdom and/or lecture their juniors, but mostly because - from the point of view of the juniors - they are given gift money in return. We'd already done our bows earlier and made our profit, and while Korean Brother had to go, he'd somehow managed to stay long enough to get his pay-off too.

Before long the collected family factions were sitting on the floor around a long low table reminiscent of some medieval European banquet - if Europeans ate copious amounts of crab, noodles, rice and plants. But before we could eat, Pastor Uncle had to say Grace, and his faction put on their most serious looks as they bowed their heads while the rest of us waited. Once he'd finished, Psychic Aunt decided to immediately follow it with a Buddhist prayer, which is not normal and very much felt as though it was designed to make a point. I believe this was obvious to everyone and the atmosphere seemed to have become very uncomfortable. It looked set to be a long evening.

But if there's one thing that can unify Koreans it's food - so it wasn't long before animosities were buried in favour of devouring the feast of potentially questionable provenance. Bits of crab flew through the air amidst this fine social scene, with Psychic Aunt pausing at one point to pull a piece out of the hair of Pastor Uncle's wife. Perhaps there could be peace in our time.

I was not faring so well. The soup tasted of seawater, the meat was of the don't-ask-don't-tell variety so popular in this country, and by the time I'd finished I felt like I'd been sucking on a metal bar for fifteen minutes. Five minutes into my re-acquaintance with authentic Korean food the Makgeolli had started to look like a good way of conducting a mercy killing of my taste buds, but it seemed rude to ask the two older Buddhists for a glass of their hard-won liquor. Unfortunately, I'm not usually offered alcohol since I'm possessed by the evil spirit which is Meniere's Disease, and for my sins I go through much of life having the balance of a drunk while actually being stone-cold sober. So it was just me, the seawater soup, and the misery of being all alone behind the language barrier with only the partially-obstructed view of the South Korea v. Japan Asia Cup game for company.

But an interesting thing happened. The Christian wants to know how work is going and the truth is I'm growing fed up with it. My wife and trading partner doesn't want the stress while pregnant, leaving me to work alone, and I've finally realised that if there's one thing I really can't stand about trading, it's the people. So what about teaching he asks - after all, one of my wife's degrees is in English Literature which has to be good for something, and in my abortive attempt to teach English in Japan post-graduation I'd acquired a TESOL qualification, although the more I learned about teaching English the more underqualified I felt - and the more I didn't want to do it. The upshot of that was we may have agreed to a potential career change somewhere on the horizon, though unfortunately I can't blame it on the non-existent alcohol.

While the Christian enthused about all the potential clients he could gather - and he's a very well connected person - his equal and opposite sat in silence, making no offer to network for us. On this evidence, I'm not sure how Buddhists intend to win hearts and minds in this country against the onslaught of a group who so rabidly want to help.


Lee Farrand said...

I always find the family gatherings to be quite surreal and only attend when dragged, kicking and screaming by my wife. I pass the time by trying not to look obviously bored and overeating salty foods...

Kallandra said...

It's weird. Lately this debate has been raging wherever I go. I'm Buddhist and here in the US many people don't like that. I just had a run in with a good friend that soured, and pretty much ended, our friendship. I think it's so sad that these religions can't abide in peace--but that's an ages old debate that I can't even begin to comment on. I'm very interested in studying the changes in the Korean religious landscape though-and may even throw around a research proposal for this summer...

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