clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Meaning of Chuseok During a Pandemic Year

During the pandemic, the whole world has been considering what the Korean holiday means — whether they realize it or not

A variety of Korean dishes, as seen on a table from above. James Park/Eater

“Ajumma said she dropped something off,” my mother texts from work. “Check outside.” I do and soon hold a box heavy with gotgam, dried persimmons, before the sun has fully risen. Throughout the spring and summer this year, we’ve received deliveries from my mother’s friends’ (my ajummas) gardens, allowing us to stretch our grocery shopping to monthly runs while we enjoyed squash, green onions, chile peppers, tomatoes, a legion of kkaennip, and chives, tangled together in their wild length. These persimmons, though, are store-bought. I take one gotgam, the fruit condensed and caught in a honeyed state, and eat it in small and slow bites. I’m enjoying it too much to realize my mother’s and my resolve for a small Chuseok meal have been compromised.

Chuseok, often described as the Korean Thanksgiving, was on October 1 this year; celebrations usually last three days, depending on when the holiday falls on the lunar calendar. There’s a great showing and sharing of traditional dishes, and it’s a major government holiday where families gather at home to celebrate together. But charye, memorial rites for ancestors, is intrinsic to Chuseok, and it’s what makes this celebration of harvest distinct from the American holiday. Graves and other memorial sites are cleaned. Incense is lit. The names of the dead are written on white hanji that’s burned, and then the dead are presented with a table set with food and drink, and their descendants bow to them. The ancestors eat the food first and then share the offering back, so that it can be enjoyed and finished by their family.

Charye is an acknowledgement that the dead exist, and that they deserve care and recognition for how they influence our current life. I think of it as a process of inventory. What we continue to hold and what we’ve gained is closely tied to the work of those who came before us, who first provided the means of our lives. Charye honors a debt of gratitude for all that we have. It’s a reckoning to the security that comes with our abundance — who do we owe and how shall we pay them?

But this year, framed by the havoc of 200,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., certainly undercounted, and a likely surge of deaths to return this winter, “abundance” has taken on a different meaning. I find an abundance of caution the most grating term in our 2020 lexicon: It’s a phrase rooted in the good of bounty and its possibilities, and is now used to refer to the violent scales of economy of those affected by the pandemic. Behind “abundance” is the posture of those who can wield the word in its power: I have resources. I have options. I can afford to wait or act when it’s convenient for me.

Like many Koreans, my mother and I accepted that Chuseok would have to be different this year. We live together, and enforce our quarantine rigorously. In our usual celebration of the holiday, we would have family over at the house, and the ajummas would visit to drop off gifts (of more food) and join our meal, which we would cook and eat from all day. This year, we thought about making a variety of jeon and delivering them to the ajummas and our nearby family, but the idea of cold jeon was just a sad reminder of how we couldn’t celebrate and eat well together. We decided on restraint, with the hope for a Chuseok feast in the future, and settled on cooking just two kinds of favorite jeon: gamjajeon, made from grated potato that’s held together by its natural starch, and dongguerangtaeng, a meatball my mother likes with squid and ground pork and beef. It seemed like a reasonable amount of food for the two of us while also feeling festive enough.

But when we received the gift of gotgam, we decided to also make sujeonggwa, a chilled punch of preserved fruit, boiled ginger, and cinnamon; it would be easy to share and deliver. When my mother was growing up in Busan, sujeonggwa was something rich families drank year round, but she would have it only on Chuseok, and only a small teacup of it. She still prefers to serve it as a small single serving because anything more ruins the indulgence. This year we reveled at the prospect of everyone receiving our gift of punch in large deli containers as if it were as common and necessary as broth.

That’s the plan, we said. Good, we both said. Agreed. Then we went to the Korean grocery store. I didn’t bring in a shopping cart because we only needed young ginger for sujeonggwa, but then my mother saw four perfect Napa cabbages. She carried them in a hug against her stomach. “We have to get these,” she said, handing me two to carry. And then chestnuts, ginkgo nuts, and pearled barley. And then a surprise: live female blue crabs. I went to get a cart. When I returned, my mother had the crabs ready in a brown paper bag and a can of Spam — the lynchpin to a full Chuseok spread. “Oh my god,” I said, taking the Spam gently into my hands. “So we’re just doing it?” My mother gave me a little “Mm” before racing over to examine the store’s selection of potatoes.

This is what we made for Chuseok, ultimately deciding to prepare food to share like we always did: cod saengseonjeon, each pan-fried with a neat, decorative snip of minari; gogijeon, thin slices of rib-eye in a heavy egg dip and covered in a confetti of spicy chiles; dongguerantaeng topped with rounds of zucchini or stuffed into jalapenos or cooked simply as meatballs; baechujeon, the prettiest leaves of the Napa cabbages lightly fried to retain some of the cabbage’s core crunch; galbijiim, beef short ribs with radish, ginkgo nuts, chestnuts, carrots, and potatoes, all generously dusted with gochugaru before a thoughtful braise; eomuk, fishcake on skewers with each roll stuffed with a slice of chile or an elegant cube of Spam; gamjajeon; sanjeok, a rainbow skewer of imitation crab, green onions, danmuji, and more Spam; kkotgetang, a crab stew green with floating chrysanthemum; and finally, the sujeonggwa. My mother toasted walnuts and pine nuts to stuff each gotgam, slicing the fruit on a bias to reveal an aromatic center, and letting them sink to the bottom of a large stainless-steel bowl we usually use for making kimchi. Every dish was driven by an impulse to reap and share the store’s best offerings, and the anticipation of sharing everything created an appetite we hadn’t felt in months.

When I was a kid, watching the bowl of sujeonggwa disappear into individual cups felt as ceremonious as bowing before our ancestors and elders, intentioned as taking communion in church. Chuseok is a celebration of genealogy as much as it is a celebration of harvest; the two are compatible if not nearly identical under the holiday’s traditional lens.

The merging of these two concepts reminds me of an approach to narrative-based medicine, which, as doctor and literary scholar Dr. Rita Charon writes, calls “the body the portal to the self.” Like Chusoek, that thinking considers our bodies part of a larger legacy; we’re all linked to each other through our ability to recognize what we share and live through together. Our quarantines, hyper visible in our Zoom rooms, in our social media posts, in our entertainment and news, have only heightened that connection. (In Charon’s narrative-based medicine practice, literary analysis and creative writing become training tools for clinicians, so they can better give their patients “the assurance that one is... still recognizable as a self despite a dramatic shift in the body.” It’s an effective, assistive approach that can also be used to treat those who have been affected by COVID-19.)

But I think about this often in relation to this season: how Chuseok acknowledges that we are bodies that come from bodies, and that the connection demands both attentive regard and maintenance. The act of charye is not religious, and while many faiths do their version of the ceremony, I’ve always been taken with how simply it serves as a reminder that we are who we are by the way we treat the people in our lives.

Under normal circumstances, my family’s Chuseok celebrations are mostly focused on the food and gathering aspects — but still, we’re hit with the realization that those we love could one day be a name before an altar of food we set. But now, with COVID-19, the entire world has been doing this thinking for almost a year, or tragically living through it. We are in a demented Chuseok-like season where we think of famine and hunger under our claims of harvest, where we think of sickness and death for the vitality of our health and lives. With coronavirus, the bodies, their stories, are abundant.

In March, my mother was one of many hourly wage workers suddenly recognized as essential. As a woman in her early 60s with diabetes and a history of stress-induced asthma, the early months of the pandemic were peaks of panic and exhaustion for every 12-hour shift my mother put on the clock. By May, we were blunted into the monotony of our anxieties. I stopped having panic attacks every time my mother left for work. We stopped asking ourselves how we could continue living like this because the answer was always in some mileage of what else?

As a nation, we haven’t begun to set the charye table, and I doubt whatever offering we could possibly give at this point to show what we owe. When my mother and I returned home with our groceries, we accepted the reality that we’d be delivering a less-than-perfect cold jeon; we did it anyway, even though it didn’t feel like it was enough.

On Chuseok, as my mother and I cooked happily and divided all the food into containers (and then Ziploc bags when we ran out of containers), we’d make the same joke. “We’re rich,” my mother said every time she poured more oil into the pan. “We’re rich,” I said when I cracked more eggs. “We’re rich,” we said in unison as we looked at all the food we packed to give away. After months of pandemic living, we still find it hard to enjoy our meals without feeling guilty, especially when faced with an excess of our own making. But this felt like relief, like a long exhale for a breath we didn’t know we were holding. It felt right. Chuseok, too, is a kind of new year for my mother and her emigration from Korea. I think for many Korean Americans, the tenor of Chuseok’s guide to remembrance expands to their or their family’s immigrant experiences. To account for the struggles it takes to make a life here, to account for what it means to survive here, is to remember a kind of body.

Before I left to deliver the food — face mask on the entire time — my mother poured us each a small serving of sujeonggwa. We toasted. After I drank mine, I studied the emptiness of my teacup and felt grateful.

Nina Yun is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri.