Friday, January 20, 2012

KOREAN CULTURE: New Year's Day (2)

Seollal (설날) and The Great Exodus 

Homeward-bound vehicles for three-day-long Seollal holiday
form endless lines on a highway (Jan. 20, 2012).

Seollal refers to Korean New Year, the first day of the lunar calendar and along with Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving Day), it is the nation’s biggest and most important holiday.  While it falls on January 23 of the Gregorian calendar this year, way over 31 million people who live mainly in Seoul and other major big cities, far away from their hometowns hence far apart from their parents and relatives, are already starting to head home three days earlier (Fri, Jan. 20).  Here’s two typical Korean cliché headlines to describe all this Seollal hoopla: (1) Maeumun seollego balgeoreumun babbeuda (마음은 설레고 발걸음은 바쁘다), which translates to “(Homeward-bounders’) fluttering hearts and busy feet”; and (2) Gosokdoroga juchajanguro byeonhaedda (고속도로가 주차장으로 변했), which literally means "A highway turned into a parking lot," to describe so horrible a traffic jam that nothing is moving forward.

This great exodus is called guiseong (귀성, 歸省), a Sino-Korean word (i.e. a word of Chinese origin),  which has the same connotation of English phrase “coming home.”  In this phrase, “coming” can only be used when the person you're going to is already there; so you’re “coming home” to your parents or relatives who live there.  In a word guiseong, ‘gui’ means “to return” and ‘seong’ “to look after or take care of,” so you’re “returning home” or “coming home” after a long absence “to care for your parents’ health if they are still alive or to visit their graves if they already passed away.”

On the other hand, there are tons of people out there in Seoul or other big cities who cannot come home because they are too busy with jam-packed schedules, because they have an infant child who can’t stand very long in a car, or simply because they can’t afford a trip.  So now we have a latest trend in coming home - yeokguiseong (역귀성, 逆歸省) which literally translates to “reverse coming home.”  These are creative actions taken by the old parents having to meet up with their not-so-young children.  This reverse coming home has one outstanding advantage:  Parents don’t have to worry about traffic jams or exhaustingly crowded bus trips since everybody’s going home when they’re coming to cities like Seoul and after long holiday weekend everybody’s going back to cities when they’re coming back home.  When parents come home to their kids, they never forget to bring two or four armfuls of homegrown produce or mom’s foods for the kids.

Still, more than half of the entire population of South Korea (31 million people out of 50 million) is escaping from big cities, to come home to their families who have lived there for generations.  And some fathers must be cleaning up every corner of their houses, expecting their grown-up children and/or grandchildren, and most mothers must be going groceries at traditional local markets or preparing traditional foods for Seollal - all with fluttering hearts and busy feet, even at this very moment I’m writing this.

      A traditional local market formed along the railroad track is livened up for Seollal holiday. (In Gyeongsangnamdo Province in the southeast of South Korea) 

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