White Tiger

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a traditional Korean painting of a white tiger

I’m sure people back home are aware that this is the year of the Tiger on the Chinese calendar. This year is particularly special because it is the year of the White Tiger. There are five elements that combine to with the twelve animals in cycles of 60 years. The element for this year is metal, so a metal tiger is seen as a white one. There are four guardian gods in Korea, Chung Ryong, the Blue Dragon, Hyun Mu, the turtle-snake), Ju Jak, the Phoenix, and Baek Ho, the White Tiger. Koreans claim that the Korean peninsula is shaped like a tiger. The Japanese, Joe, and at least a handful of others think it looks more like a rabbit. You be the judge… ^^

I ended up catching a cold last Saturday, so wasn’t in the best form for the occasion on Sunday. I got up early anyway and made it to EunBong’s father’s house for ddeok guk and the usual fried side dished that seem to go with holidays here. Ddeok guk is like a won ton soup, except it’s full of sliced rice cake. Cake, in this instance, is more like when you refer to something as being “caked on” then a birthday or wedding cake. Rice is mashed, or bashed with a huge wooden mallet, until it makes a thick, sticky dough. It’s then pressed through a hole to form a long white tube, about an inch in diameter. Eating ddeok guk signifies that you are one year older, as everyone gets a year older together, in Korea, on the New Year.

Despite the salt that EunBong’s father threw around the doorway to keep him away, like an unwanted ghost, his friend unexpectedly showed up with a couple bottles of soju. He is one of EunBong’s mother’s least favorite people, but it was interesting to see their interactions. She fed him, was generally polite to him, and didn’t say a negative word until we left.

We made our way to EunBong’s uncle’s house for more food. Her uncle was one of the best TaeKwanDo masters in Korea and made a good fortune as an instructor. There is a framed calligraphy of the Tae Kwon Do characters by Park Jung Hee over the door. EunBong’s aunt has the face of a grandmother cabbage patch doll, the build of a rugby player, and the voice of an interogationist, but a Buddha in her heart.  She spends her weekends volunteering at an old-age home, bathing the residents and changing their diapers. They have two sons, a few years older than myself, and they each have a son and a daughter. Growing up, I was far away from my cousins and uncles and aunts. In Korea, there’s little chance of running into any long-lost relatives. I found it fascinating, though, to see the children playing with Fina and realize they shared the same blood. I’d met EunBong’s family for the first time at our wedding, so I was a little distracted to keep track of who was who. If you’ve ever been introduced to a Korean relative, you understand how it can be difficult. Every person in the family is ranked according to their age, the age of their parent and whether it’s their mother or father’s family also makes a difference. Also, EunBong doesn’t refer to her cousins as cousins, they are her brothers and sisters.

The first few times I visited, the children hid themselves in their room, but I think they’re getting used to me know. It might be strange for them to have a “foreigner” in the family. I had a nice time with them, this time. They’ve studied enough English in school to say a few things, and I tried my best in Korean. Mostly, EunBong still translates for me. I asked the little girl if she thought Fina looks Korean or foreign. At first she said she thought she looks Korean but quickly retracted her statement and told us, “She looks like Hanna Nim (Jesus), except she doesn’t have his ears.”

One response »

  1. I remember “celebrating” new year’s during the last weeks of Kyol Che retreat at Hwa Gye Sah. We would have “special” food – not the normal retreat food – including rice cake soup. And we’d sometimes play traditional Korean games like yut nori (??). And, best of all, there were only 2 weeks of retreat to go!

    Thanks for this lovely post.

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