Thursday, 21 February 2013

Dinner with the Yeos

Earlier this month South Korea celebrated one of its most important traditional holidays. Lunar New Year, or Seollal as it's known in Korea, is a three-day holiday that fell on February 10th this year. Unlike New Year's celebrations back home, Seollal is less a time for fireworks and rampant drinking, and more a time for family and friends. Shops close, cities slow down, and the country's highways become jam-packed as people flock to see their loved ones.

Though I don't have any family in Korea, my girlfriend Angela is half-Korean on her mother's side, and has several aunts, uncles and cousins living in Seoul. I felt very honoured when she told me that some members of her family had invited me along for their New Year's family dinner on the east side of the city. I had never met her family before; in fact I had never been in any Korean family's home, so it was a new and very momentous experience for me.

We spent several hours at their apartment, speaking to one another in broken Korean, broken English and various improvised gestures. Despite the language barrier, the Yeo family easily made us feel at home through their welcoming smiles, good humour and endless generosity. We enjoyed Angela's aunt's delicious homemade Korean food, and exchanged compliments, inquisitive questions, and stories about our lives. It made for an afternoon I'll never forget, filled with warmth, happiness, and some of the best Korean food I've eaten so far.

Angela and her family at the dinner table, which in true Korean style rested only a few inches from the floor.
Angela's aunt made a heavenly Seollal feast for us, including these delicious gunmandu: Korean fried dumplings covered in diced peppers and sweet sauce.
We also had tteokguk, a tasty rice-cake soup. According to tradition, upon eating the soup, you gain an extra year of life (in Korea, along with other East Asian cultures, your age increases not on your birthday but on the turn of the new year).
Various Korean dessert cakes.
Here's Angela with her aunt and uncle's two dogs, Pu-Chi and Pu-Pu. Their names are Chinese, and it's actually just a happy coincidence that the name "Pu-Chi" resembles the English term "pooch."

I felt so welcomed.

Angela's cousin, Eunyoung, lived in China for seven years, is fluent in Mandarin Chinese, and has mastered the preparation of traditional Chinese green tea.

I think Pu-Chi and Pu-Pu wanted in on the green tea sponge cake.
The view of eastern Seoul from the apartment window.

Eunyoung and Angela.

We spent some time looking through some of her family's photo albums.

I wish I could express in words how wonderful it was spending the afternoon with Angela and her family. Things never once felt awkward, and in fact I rarely even felt conscious of the cultural barrier: the simple act of spending time with family, enjoying food and talking about life, memories and hopes for the future, is so universal that it transcends language, tradition and other cultural quirks. Through their spirit of generosity and hospitality, the Yeos made me feel like one of their own, and I can't wait to spend more time with them over the course of this new year.

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