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).