Korean Thanksgiving

Juneau Koreans meet to celebrate Chuseok, a day of togetherness

Posted: Monday, October 05, 2009

Having the first name Kim in a room full of Koreans is a joke waiting to happen - something I found out Sunday during the Juneau Korean Church's celebration of Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving.

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David J. Sheakley / Juneau Empire
David J. Sheakley / Juneau Empire

"We are all Kims too," the Rev. Peter Oh proclaimed to the dozen local Koreans who gathered for a Korean-spoken Christian church service at Emmanuel Baptist Church.

But despite the common name "Kim" (usually as a surname rather than a first name), Koreans on Sunday held a delectable thanksgiving holiday filled with family, food, traditional dress and activities.

"Chuseok is a time for togetherness, family time and thanksgiving," said Joy Wilkinson, a native South Korean. "It is a really big deal. It's one of only two times a year when extended families get together."

Seong Kim, owner of Seong's Sushi Bar, said Chuseok is similar to the American Thanksgiving in that it is a time to give thanks for the harvest and honor ancestors, he said.

"You finish up the farming and gather all the rice or whatever you had that year," Seong Kim said. "You give thanks to your ancestors and then get all the family together and celebrate."

One of the biggest migration events in Korea, second only to Seollal (Korean New Year), Chuseok means more than half of the population will travel to visit families and ancestral graves during the three-day holiday. Wilkinson said it causes massive traffic jams on major highways.

"People visit their parents' graveyards, take care of the graveyards and just kind of remember them and what they did," she said. Her husband, David Wilkinson, equated it to Memorial Day.

Jeong Kim, a 15-year Juneau resident, said Chuseok falls on the lunar calendar, usually sometime between mid-September and early October on the solar calendar. Next year, it will be on Sept. 22, and the following years on Sept. 12 and Sept. 30.

"With Chuseok, every year is different," Jeong Kim said. "You have to calculate it each year."

For the holiday, all family members dress in new hanboks (traditional Korean dress) and perform the ritual of charye at their family's ancestral graves.

Naturally, traditional Korean food is prepared. On the menu Sunday was jun, a Korean omelette-like pancake made with egg, shrimp and vegetables; jap chae, sweet potato noodles with beef and vegetables; chong po muk (mung bean jelly), a soft, milky white substance with homemade soy sauce that resembles Sri Racha in appearance; octopus stir fry; egg rolls; kimchi (pickled cabbage); and the Chuseok must-have - songpyun, crescent-shaped rice cakes filled with toasted sesame seeds, chestnuts, red beans, peas or, as on Sunday, yellow bean paste. Other typical Chuseok foods include soup and sanjeok, barbecue-like skewers.

Also are part of the celebration are traditional games and activities: archery, seesawing for the girls, tug of war and wrestling.

Sunday's group enjoyed a traditional Korean board game called yut nori. Usually played in two teams, yut nori involves players taking turns tossing four yut, wooden sticks with a round side and flat side, onto a mat. Round-facing and flat-facing combinations yield varying points, which players use to move their team's playing pieces around either a square-style or round-style board.

While giving thanks for the delicious food and good company, some Juneau Korean Church members expressed their gratefulness to the Rev. Peter Oh, who led festivities.

"Having a Korean pastor in a town with such a small number of Koreans is really a blessing to this community and to us personally," David Wilkinson said. "We're so thankful to have him here."

With a small congregation of 17 to 25 members, the Juneau Korean Church offers Christian services spoken in Korean at 1 p.m. every Sunday at Emmanuel Baptist Church.

Oh has been in Juneau only six months but hopes to start a new Korean church while he's here; Emmanuel Baptist currently offers the space to the church at no cost.

And beginning this week, Oh will open a Korean language school for the church's youth. Slated to be held for three hours every Saturday, the class will teach Korean language, songs, history and customs to children in the church.

"I want to teach our children not to forget our Korean traditions," Oh said. "They speak only the English and learn American history, but if we don't teach the Korean language, customs, history, everything, they'll forget it."

Oh hopes that after developing the curriculum, the language school will grow to accommodate the general public. He currently has about eight kids registered.

"I hope to teach them Korean identity," Oh said.

For more information about the Juneau Korean Church, write to P.O. Box 32431, Juneau, AK 99803, or call 500-2392. The Rev. Peter Oh may be contacted at kwangok@yahoo.com.

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at 523-2272 or kim.andree@juneauempire.com.

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