Say Kimchi! Gimjang, a Korean winter tradition

When I think of winter, I think of snow blanketing the ground (or dreams of snow blanketing the ground). I think of decorating the Christmas tree, hanging wreaths around the house and on the front door, traipsing around the house with strands of garland and lights.

But here in Korea, as often is the case, it’s a very different story, and one that my children are learning every year as the days shorten and the air turns crispy.

Here, it’s Gimjang, or kimchi-making, season. It’s time to pack up and send the aprons and the hats and special ingredients to school so all the kids can work together to make kimchi.

Gimjang is an ages old tradition of preparing copious amounts of kimchi (Korea’s mainstay side dish) before the cold of winter hits. Before the invention of refrigeration, the fresh produce required to make kimchi would be harder to get.

Koreans, always the collective community, would certainly not partake in this activity alone, so traditionally, they would come together and make enough of the spicy side dish to last the whole winter. For everyone. Just imagine the buckets and buckets of kimchi!

These days, refrigerators are as common as coffee shops in Korea (read: very). Most Koreans even have a second refrigerator specifically for kimchi!) But traditions die hard on this peninsula, so Gimjang is still a regular practice every year, planned as soon as those beautiful and smelly yellow gingkos hit the ground.

I love that Finn and Poppy are learning these traditions from a different culture. And, don’t’ worry, there’s still a Christmas tree and enough garland and lights in their lives to wrap around our 17-story high-rise apartment twice.

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Poppy was scared of the kimchi at first, her teacher told me. But, once she got used to mixing the spicy and stinky cabbage with her hands, she got excited about and yelled “kimchi! kimchi!”

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A Taste of Korean Hospitality

By Whit Altizer

Biking through the Korean countryside always makes me fall more fiercely in love with this country. The masses of people, the identical apartment blocks, and the breakneck pace of the city often feels inescapable. But take a step just outside the clamor of the city and you’re hit hard with a different side of Korea. Outside the cities the faces get friendlier, the rice fields get greener and the pace of the people is similar to the slow meander of the streams and rivers that traverse the peninsula.

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It was about that pace I was pedaling my bike and two sleeping children up a steep hill when a bongo truck came puttering up behind me. It was Chuseok in Korea and we were on a family and friends bike trip to Andong. It was our last day and we were all hot and tired and feeling mildly defeated about the slow climbs in the last 30 km of our ride.

A farmer got out of the old blue truck and reached into the bed for something. Then she turned toward us with an armful of red apples. Smiling at my sleeping children, she tucked them into the trailer with my kids and disappeared over the hill like a mirage.

About 10 miles down the bike path, hot and exhausted, our caravan of parents and children pulled over in the shade for a quick break from the unrelenting sun. My friend and his daughter had seen the same farmer and also had about a half-dozen of these beautiful apples. We pulled out the apples and moaned with delight at their sweet, crisp taste.

Sharing food with strangers is very Korean. My son is learning this at his Korean school and I hope it is one thing that becomes second-nature to him. When you go somewhere with food, bring enough for others. It’s such a small gesture, but so lovely when made toward you.

So there I stood huddled in the shade, feeling incredibly grateful for the farmer that took 30 seconds out of her day to give us a small, but delicious taste of Korean hospitality. I doubt I’ll ever taste an apple that good again.

Attention Artists of Korea! Check out [b]racket Magazine!

By Whit Altizer

Looking to get involved in Korea’s art scene? Here is a great place to start.

[b]racket Magazine out of Daegu is a collaboration between 4 passionate expat artists and almost anyone who is interested. [b]racket aims to give artists in Korea a place to showcase their work who may have never had their work showcased. You don’t have to be an established artist, just someone with some work that’s interesting. Luckily for all of us, we get to enjoy watching people hone their art skills. You can pick up a free copy in 3 major cities in Korea.

In [b]racket’s words from their webpage:

[b]racket Magazine is a collaboration between Jess Hinshaw [editor in chief], Christopher Cote [design editor], Sybille Cavasin [words editor], Lisa Highfill [digital editor], and the artists of Korea. [b]racket started the with the idea that many artists in Korea are active, talented, and not yet established. [b]racket strives to support and showcase these artists by creating a free magazine and distributing it in Daegu, Seoul and Busan. By creating the magazine and distributing it throughout these cities we additionally intend to enrich these communities by informing and sharing artwork with the residents of Korea. [b]racket is free and possible due to the artists who submit, and the advertisers who cover the printing costs. Advertisers in [b]racket are not only supporting their own business’ growth, but the growth of the art community and artists of Korea.

[b]racket Magazine은 편집장Jess Hinshaw, 디자인 편집기Christopher Cote, 단어 편집기Sybille Cavasin, 디지털 편집기Lisa Highfill 과 한국 작가들이 함께만드는 잡지입니다. [b]racket Magazine은 한국에 활동적이고 재능있지만 아직 인정받지 못하고 있는 작가들이 많다는 생각에서부터 출발하여, 그들을 지원하고 세상에 알리기위해 노력하고 있습니다. 대구사회에 잡지를 제작하여 배포함으로써 대구 시민들께 미술작업들을 알리고 함께 나누면서 지역사회를 더욱 더 풍성하게 하고자 합니다. [b]racket Magazine은 작업들을 싣는 작가들과 인쇄비용을 충당해주는 광고주들의 도움으로 무료로 배포됩니다. 광고주들은 그들 자신의 사업뿐 아니라 한국의 작가들과 예술집단의 성장을 함께 지원하는 것입니다.

Jess Hinshaw also happens to be an old friend of mine. He approaches everything with the precision of an artist. [b]racket Magazine has benefitted from his attention to detail and passion for art. Also, he’s found a great team to enhance his vision for the magazine. It’s a labor of love for the 4 of them.

I (Whit) also happen to write a little for them and love the practice of writing about something I know little about. Check out one of my favorite pieces about artist Andy Knowlton.

But connections aside, I’d still be a fan of [b]racket. It’s a beautiful magazine made by expats who are actively trying to build an artist community. That is positive for all of us, artist or not, calling this peninsula home.

Click here for specific locations of where you can find [b]racket and see their website for specifics on how you can get involved.

A gift box for you: Happy Chuseok!

Now in my fifth year in Korea, I’m starting to realize that I have assimilated somewhat into the culture. Things that were once very foreign to me now seem completely commonplace. Sometimes, I have to remind myself…wait a minute, I actually used to leave my shoes on INSIDE my house? Eww, how dirty! Or, why would I NOT eat kimchi with every meal? Or, telling Finn, who is now 2 and a half years old, that he’s going to be in trouble if he doesn’t say hello loudly in Korean and bow to any elder person who speaks to him.

Maybe that means it’s time to move on to somewhere else. A new place that challenges me every day. Who knows if I’ll ever do that. For now, it means Korea has become a part of me. She’s come in my life like the bullet train that crosses the country: fast and quiet, tenacious and proud, humble yet memorable.

This week is Chuseok in Korea, one of the two largest holidays in in the country (the other being Lunar New Year). It’s like our American Thanksgiving back home, minus the pilgrims and Indians, plus a different menu and with a thousand-year-old culture thrown in.

Also known as Hangawi (한가위), Chuseok was the day on which Koreans, an agrarian people throughout most of history, gave thanks to their ancestors for the year’s harvest, and shared their abundance with family and friends.

According to the Korean Tourism Organization, Han means “big” and gawi means “the ides of August/Autumn” (August 15th according to the lunar calendar is when the full harvest moon appears).

Although the exact origin of Chuseok is unclear, the tradition may be found at ancient religious practices that centered around the moon. The sun’s presence was considered routine, but the full moon that came once a month was considered a special and meaningful event. Therefore, harvest festivities took place on the day of the bright, full moon or August 15 on the lunar calendar system. This year, it falls on September 19.

Modern Chuseok looks a lot different than it used to, of course. One major part of the modern holiday is gift-giving. This season of gift-giving is much larger than their Christmas celebration, which is seen more of a “date day” in Korea. But during Chuseok season, you can’t go through a shopping center or large grocery chain without seeing the ubiquitous box sets of random gifts. Women dressed in traditional Korean hanbok help customers find the perfect gift box set: expensive boxes of beautifully arranged cans of spam, olive oil, shampoo, ginger roots, make-up, sesame-oils, you-name-it.

Oh how strange that used to be! Why would anyone want a box of spam? Spam? Seriously?

I can’t help but think this is completely normal now. Whit came home from the office on Friday with a beautiful box of some 20 oranges. “What a beautiful gift,” I exclaim, when he pedaled home on his bike, balancing the large box wrapped and tied in a pink scarf on his handlebars.  “Wow! That was so kind of your boss. He must have spent so much money!”

I even went so far as to think what the perfect Chuseok gift for me would be. Hmmm, I thought. A box of body lotions. Yes! Or maybe the box set of diverse tea bags. That would be really lovely! I do love tea!

For now, we are enjoying our oranges. And if you live nearby, we’d love to share. We have enough to last us until the next Chuseok. But if you come over, don’t forget to take your shoes off at the door.

See our other blogs on Chuseok:
Lindsay- “Happy Chuseok”  2007
Lindsay- “Chuseok–A holiday for men, a vacation for children, a labor day for women”
2008
Whit “Celebrate Chuseok” 2011