Living to be two

Saturday I was invited to the one year birthday party for the grandson of my landlord.  It’s a big event here in Korea, and it was held in a wedding hall.   The real estate agent and I went to a big hotel and there were maybe 60 in attendance.  Another baby birthday was happening at the same time, with maybe 100 in attendance, and the shared buffet looked big enough to feed about 300 people.  This extravagant party was especially called for because adjumma’s first grandchild was a boy, from her first and only son.

Adjosshi and the birthday boy

I already knew this, but the real estate agent explained how in times past a child living to be two years old (one by Western standards) was a major milestone.  Many children died shortly after birth, and so 100 days was a celebration, and if the child made it an entire year, odds were the child was strong enough to live to adulthood.  The real estate agent explained that medicine was hard to come by should a child become sick, and that often poverty meant there wasn’t enough food to go around to make the child strong.  He said it was like this up until about the time I was adopted, and that was probably why I was sent away.  I didn’t tell him I was over two and maybe almost three by the time I was abandoned, or that I was fat and healthy, and I wondered if there had been a 100 days celebration or a one year celebration for me growing up, since I DID have a family for quite some time…

Aside from eating ungodly amounts of Korean & Chinese dishes (the buffet line was double-sided and stretched for 50 ft, and then there was also 10 ft. of sushi buffet as well.   110 ft. of food, if you can imagine…) there didn’t seem to be much of a program except photographing the baby being cute.  There was little focus on anything but eating more and more food.

With all that sumptuous food, my favorite was a simple, clear magenta-colored soup with minimal amounts of cabbage, green onion, and flower-shaped carrots floating in it.  I loved it because it was cold and fermented like mul kimchi, yet it was infused with (probably) jalapeno pepper, so it was also spicy hot.  Beautiful, delicate, yet surprising in its contrasts. This recipe sounds similar, but not half as pretty.  (maybe the greens were mustard stms?) The real estate agent called it namul kimchi, but that’s a broad name for any vegetable banchan.

Then, every guest was given a raffle ticket.  The real estate agent took me to a table with eight goblets.  Each goblet indicated a different symbol for a profession, and we had to choose which profession we thought the baby would be and leave our raffle number in that goblet.  Later, there was an MC who had the halmoni say something to the baby, and then he asked everyone a question, and answers were shouted out randomly from the crowd.  The real estate agent pointed at me and said “Migook!”  Everyone clapped.  And then I was shoved up to the front and a mike was stuck in my face.  Turns out I won an award for traveling the farthest.  The real estate agent thought it was hilarious that everyone thought I came just for the birthday party.  Now, with the two mugs I won I now have six coffee mugs that I haven’t bought.

The young family
the baby and his omma

After one more prize for something, the baby’s parents put a tray in front of him with eight items on it.  The baby ‘s attention was directed towards the tray, and the baby picked up some money to play with, so that means he will be a businessman or some profession involving money.  Then, a raffle ticket number was chosen from the corresponding goblet.  There was cake cutting, the birthday song in Korean, and then?  Everyone got up and rapidly split!  Real estate agent too, one of the first outta there, and since he was my ride…

I came home and slept off some of my eating and heard my landlords arrive, and rushed to catch them and give them the envelope of cash I had been told by others was required at these things.  A friend was with them and the adjumma invited me in for food and I got to watch her disrobe from her hanbok prior to making a snack.  I told her how ipeuda it was and she dressed me up in it, and it was many sizes too big.  Then she told me she would get me one.  Then she said she had to have it dry-cleaned first and I realized she meant she would give me hers.  I tried to protest, knowing how expensive these silk taffetta ones are, but she didn’t understand.  So all I could do was thank her.   So, it looks like I will be the owner of a hanbok soon!  I wonder how much alterations will cost?  I’m really thankful the colors are a simple and restrained.

adjumma and baby

Fortunately, (and probably to her relief) I convinced her that a cup of coffee would suffice, and I watched and listened as they pulled out the pile of envelopes.  There was some controversy, and from what I could gather someone called her friend explaining that they had neglected to write their name on the envelope, and the amount they had given.  Mr. landlord (I don’t know his name, and though adjumma’s last name is Kim, I think I read that the women keep their maiden name here in Korea) went through all the envelopes and found one without a name, but the amount inside was less than described.  Much controversy ensued with loud phone calls back and forth, and some recriminations about some people who left early and didn’t leave a gift.  I guess that at these kind of functions:  birthday parties, weddings, and funerals, cash is always expected and everyone’s gift amount is carefully recorded.  This is so gifts to their functions are equal or better, for to give less is offensive and can cause bitterness and feuding.  The keeping up with the Jones’ here is pretty insidious…

It’s kind of a shame, really, that these gifts are not from the heart but obligations, and that people must put on a big show and measure the value of their relationships.  But, as can be seen by the hanbok gift, some things are beyond social constructs.

One thought on “Living to be two

  1. Very insightful observations. The issues of keeping track of ‘who gave what, and how much’ is certainly part of the culture of Korea. TIK This IS Korea, hard for us Bananas (and shall I say bi-racial lighter-skinned Pears) find difficult to understand. When I first came here in 1995, I was invited to give my story at many churches that knew of me from my appearing with an American church that had some re-known. They insisted on giving me envelopes of money, at first I tried to refuse, thinking that it was not “right” to receive payments. Then the pastors explained that according to custom I would offend them greatly, then quoted verses that “do not muzzle the ox when it is pulling the grinding wheel (it can eat some of the droppings on the ground)” and where the Apostle Paul spoke about ‘the laborer is worthy of his hire’ Luke 10:7
    I just had to accept the envelopes, as a ‘stupid Ox worthy of hire’. In many cases I tried to give back to the same church a gift for the children such as English teaching books for kids. Social customs can be very difficult at first and I also thought it ‘insidious’ but later realized that most pastors, associate pastors, unordained pastors especially HAD to make their living from visitations to all members. Chon Do Sa Nim are students of Theological Seminaries and only received 600,000 won from the churches. They received envelopes of various amounts, according to the largess and financial abilities of each member. However small the gift the ChonDoSaNim’s told me that they must visit all members in their assigned areas.
    Yes, I know what everyone is thinking (those of Western cultures may be tsk, tsking, but TIK) and somewhere it is written, “the left hand should not know what the right hand doeth” (Matt. 6:7) puts into the coffers. Another TIK moment is that many churches, Protestants mainly, publish the monthly amounts of the top members ‘Tithes and Offering’.
    Unmarked envelopes were returned to me, reminding me that I needed/forgot to write down my name. Mine was the only one without…

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