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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

KOREAN CULTURE: New Year's Day (1)

떡국(Ddeokguk) 그리고 한국 나이 (Rice Cake Soup and Korean Age) 

Champagne toast, fireworks, a balloon drop, and a kiss at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve are all essential and customary to how the United States welcomes the New Year.  And people all shout, “Happy New Year!”  Korea is lit up with joyous shouting and applause at the stroke of midnight, too.  People gathering in the streets, families gathering at home, and couples partying out exchange blessings – Saehae Bok Mani Badeuseyo!, or Saehae Bok Mani Bada!  This literally means “In the New Year, may you receive many blessings,” thus “May your New Year be filled with blessings.”  By doing so, they want to set the tone for the New Year. (Click here to read more about New Year’s Eve in Korea.)

New Year’s Day is a day traditionally reserved for families in Korea just like Christmas Day is in the States.  Koreans eat rice cake soup (떡국, Ddeokguk) on the morning of New Year’s Day as Americans eat Christmas ham and/or turkey.  But here’s the thing:  Koreans don’t turn one year older unless they have a bowl of rice cake soup on New Year’s Day.  As a matter of fact, all Koreans turn one year older on New Year’s Day, not on their birthdays – this is quite widely known as the Korean age system.  So it’s not too much to say that the very first day of each year is a collective birthday of the whole Korean people.  Of course, Korean people celebrate their own birthdays by throwing a party, going on a trip, or taking some special portraits but they still have to wait until the first of January to get one year older.  

The following is an actual conversation me and my husband had with our son, Caleb, while having rice cake soup three days ago on New Year’s Day:

Mom: 
Caleb, you’re turning eight in six months already.
Caleb: 
Yes, on July 9th.
Mom: 
But did you know you would turn eight right now when you finish that bowl of soup if you were in Korea?
Caleb:
No, I didn’t.
Dad: 
No, he’d be nine.
Mom: 
Would he?  Oh, yeah, you’re right.
Caleb: 
Whoa!  That old?

Yes, by the time Caleb was done with his rice cake soup, he turned already nine even though he was born 7 ½ years ago.   Now, you may be wondering why and here's the answer.  Korean babies are already one year old upon birth as Koreans consider a fetus to be a human being from the moment of conception, so the whole gestation period of average 266 days is counted as its first year of life.  Ancient Koreans might have thought each and every stage of life counts.  It's just my guess though.

Still confused about Korean age system?  Okay.  Let me give you an example.  Here’s Jack.  He was born on January 1, 2011. He was already one year old the moment he was born and just turned two on January 1, 2012.  So he’s two now.  And here’s Jill.  She was born on December 31, 2011 and was already one year old.  She, too, turned two the next day on January 1, 2012 when she’s considered only a day old here in the States.  So Jack and Jill are the same age.  Some of you might think it sucks.  Then, tell me about it.  Western age system gives this mama peace of mind, too.  Oh, just a second!  Korean age system will never work for Jack and Jill as long as they don’t have a bowl of rice cake soup on New Year’s Day.  Quite a relief, huh?

The idea behind this rice cake soup tradition is that rice (especially white rice) used to be hard to get in Korea, long, long time ago.  Commoners rarely had a chance to have even a single bowl of rice.  It was only for the royals and nobles.  Instead of rice, they had millet, buckwheat, corn, potatoes, or sweet potatoes in their bowls as staple foods.  Can you imagine how unusual a thing rice cakes used to be?  If you only knew how much rice it takes to make rice cakes.  It takes approximately 4.4 ounces of rice to make one 12-inch-long garae ddeok (which is also called ddeokguk ddeok because it's the main ingredient in rice cake soup, ddeokguk.  Click here to learn about the modernized way of making garae ddeok.):


It takes approximately 4.4 ounces of rice
 to make one 12-inch-long garae ddeok.

And when you think about the time and effort put into making rice cakes, it’s no wonder commoners could not afford to consume them at all but on their hwangap (60th birthday) or national holidays like Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving Day) or Seollal (Korean New Year’s Day).  Rice cakes were simply too fancy and luxurious for them to even dream of - most rice cakes are sweet, beautiful, magnificent, and served as desserts - as cakes, pastries, and tarts are served in Western countries - even though some are salted and served as a meal.


The Beauty of Korean Rice Cakes
(Music) Pansori Sarangga (Love Song) from Chunhyang


To ancient Koreans (and even to my parents’ generation or other war generations), rice cakes meant festivities and holidays while rice cake soup meant ultimate, palatable pleasures as its recipe includes such rare food items as rice cakes and beef or pheasant meat. 

Now you may know how precious rice cake soup was considered amongst Ancient Koreans.  As it meant a lot, when older Korean generations wanted to know someone’s age, they used to ask, “How many bowls of rice cake soup have you ever eaten so far?” instead of “How old are you?”  When that someone was 50 years old, he would answer, “50 bowls” or just “I’m fifty years old now.”   But here’s a warning.  If you ask Korean kids you meet anywhere in Korea these days the same question, I’m 100% sure that they will answer, “A lot,” or just give you a duh look.


RECIPE:  RICE CAKE SOUP (DDEOKGUK)
KOREAN LANGUAGE: RICE CAKE METAPHOR IN KOREAN MAXIMS

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