Before I jump into the whole complicated story, allow me to begin with some background: jesa is a Korean memorial service held on the anniversary of an ancestors’ death. As it’s been explained to me, this usually goes back for four generations — Abeoji and Eomeoni (father and mother); Harabeoji and Halmeoni (grandfather and grandmother); great-grandparents; and finally, great-great-grandparents.
If you’re keeping track, that translates to eight jesa a year. (No wonder Korean women avoid marrying eldest sons, as it’s the wife of the eldest son who’s in charge of preparing the extremely complicated and time-consuming jesa table.)
The ceremony is a very involved one, with many minute steps required to pull off the perfect jesa. (The Ask A Korean blog has an interesting and extremely detailed description of the process here.) The gist of it is this: once a year, on the anniversary of the departed’s death date, the surviving family members pay tribute to their forebears by preparing an enormous feast for the ancestor; by performing special rites (among them burning incense, pouring alcohol, and tapping chopsticks in a bowl three times).
Obviously, I’m a novice: jesa is still a mystery to me, but it’s an extraordinary insight into the importance of Korean traditions. After reading about it, I asked my friend and co-teacher a few details about the ceremony. She, in turn, invited me to her family’s next jesa. I was shocked. I didn’t think any non-family members were allowed, much less a clumsy white girl who can’t even do a proper jeol (an honorific bow).
When I told my other Korean friends about the invitation, they had much the same reaction. “Her family is very open-minded,” they said. On the night of jesa, I felt the weight of the Western world on my shoulders. I don’t wanna mess this up for everybody else, I kept thinking. How can I show how honored I feel to be included, especially since I can’t freely communicate with her family in my (very) limited Korean?
When I arrived, her family immediately invited me to sit and share food with them. Everyone was extraordinarily kind, warm and welcoming, and seemed happy that I was interested in jesa. We all sat around a table on the floor and ate fried fish with green onions and heaps of homemade rice cakes. Her nephews were running around being, well, normal elementary-age boys, which put me at ease. Especially when one of them told me I had a “funny nose and a watermelon face.” Thanks, kid. At least it made for a lighthearted moment on a serious occasion.
Traditionally, jesa begins at midnight, but many modern Korean families have scooted this up a bit to accommodate work schedules. This jesa was scheduled for 10 p.m. (and I was grateful, as Alex and I were waking up at 6 a.m. the next day to go to Seoul).
After my friend’s mother laid the jesa table, everyone gathered in the living room. The women hung back and observed (they generally don’t participate) while the men — her father, brother, nephews, uncle, and grandfather’s brother — performed the ceremony. When I arrived, everyone was dressed casually in jeans and t-shirts, but wore suits for the ceremony. At the end, everyone did jeol together, and I think I managed to not embarrass myself. Maybe.
Afterward, we gathered around the table to eat the feast that my friend’s mother had prepared. The men ate first, followed by the women. Actually, there was an awkward moment when I was invited to join the men’s table, since I was a guest. I felt nervous without my friend to guide me, which they must have picked up on (the power of nunchi!), because they quickly invited her to sit with me, too.
Her family explained that jesa food (unlike the bulk of Korean eats) is not spicy, because the ancestors do not like spicy foods. We had dubu (tofu) soup, pork, beef, octopus, myriad varieties of greens, a bounty of fruit, cookies, candies and cakes and, of course, rice, all served on regal-looking carved wooden pillar-plates and brass tableware. My friend’s grandmother joked that grandfather must have been “surprised to see me” at the ceremony.
After the feast — which is the only way to describe the smorgasbord we consumed — I helped clean up. By “helped,” I mean I was relegated to menial tasks and tried not to get in the way.
Ever the gracious hosts, my friend’s family invited me to spend the night rather than head into the cold for the journey from their fantastic downtown apartment to my tiny one-room in Chilgok. Alas, I had to decline, but hope to be invited back for more family time. It was comforting to be included in a family tradition — even one that’s new for this waygook.