Chusok: Remembering Ancestors in Korea

by Hae Won Kwon

"...a beautiful morning to say hello to ancestors"

Introduction by Joe Beine

2003 marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. It was also the 100th anniversary of Korean immigration to the United States. I have a friend named Hae Won Kwon who was born in Korea. She came to America in 1980 and became a US citizen in 1999. The forms she filled out were not that much different from the ones I have for my German great grandfather who became a US citizen in 1915. In 2002 Hae Won returned to the country of her birth for only the second time since immigrating to America. She spent nearly five months there, taking classes and visiting relatives. One day in November she emailed me a journal entry about accompanying her uncles and cousin to the graves of their ancestors. I think it is one of the most beautiful pieces I have read about why we do this thing called genealogy. She has given me permission to include it here. (-JB, May 2003)

Remembering Chusok by Hae Won Kwon

We hiked up a mountainside on what had once been a bamboo forest. The bamboo had been harvested long before, and what remained were brown hollow stumps sticking up from the earth. Sharp, dry and tough, the stumps did not crush as we stepped on them. Their roots webbed underneath the dusty earth, exposed through the eroding of what was once topsoil.

We stopped half-way, my uncles, cousin and myself. We put on our gloves, and an uncle shouldered the weedwacker steadily while another uncle poured fuel into it. He capped the tank, pulled a crank, and the weedwacker started wacking. The mountainside had been very quiet this early morning. The mists were not off the mountain and the sun was not shining. We carried with us a small plastic bag of dried squid, alcohol and paper cups. In another bag we had clean spades, gloves, warm tea in a thermos and chocolate moonpies. We hung back from the weedwacking uncle, who slowly waved his way through an overgrown trail toward a grove of trees. When he reached a field on the other side he stopped.

It was 2 weeks before Chusok, and we were on that mountainside this morning to fulfill our filial duty to our paternal ancestors by clearing their graves. We had to clear the place up for all the relatives who’d visit during the holiday. We couldn’t have them sitting among waist-high weeds, the children afraid for snakes in the tall grass. The area had to be prepared for the family picnic and for photographs and nice shady places to eat and talk and for the children to play.

The mountainside was tiered for the graves. The tiers became wider as they descended to accommodate more and more graves. The oldest grave on the top tier belonged to my great-grandfather and his wife. The second tier held the body of the only dead ancestor I had known, my paternal grandmother. I stopped before it to gaze at the headstone I couldn’t read. Uncle called out from the top tier, “Don’t go there yet”, he said. “this one comes first.”

Graveyard Photograph by Hae Won Kwon

Before the mowing began my uncles poured alcohol into paper cups and poured them onto the first mound. The cups were filled again, and placed on a small table before it along with dried squid. As I watched they stood before the mound shoulder to shoulder. My eldest uncle was not a churchgoer, and so could bow. The younger uncle and my cousin were Christian, and chose to pray. They stood tall with their hands folded before them like silent Baptists, and bowed their heads. The eldest uncle brought his hands to his forehead and bowed to the ground twice.

After the food was put away, we began to clean up. For the next few hours we bundled dead grass and pulled weeds off the burial mounds. The trick, Uncle said, was to pull weeds and roots without pulling earth. He wanted to leave the mounds as undisturbed as possible. As my cousin and I began to pull vigorously, he let out a nervous noise and hastily ran up the mound, clamping down the tufts of grass with his foot. I let the mounds alone after that, and worked around the headstones.

We bowed and poured in front of each burial mound, on every tier we cleared. The mists slowly lifted and the sun shone. We could hear the bellow of cows and the barking of dogs somewhere in the valley below. Some distant birds not afraid of the weedwacker were singing. It was a beautiful morning to say hello to ancestors.

The gloves made me brave and I picked up several insects. One was a green praying mantis, long and sharp and all knees and elbows. Another was a black salamander with two gold stripes down its back. I saw an orange and green spider near the mound bigger than my thumbnail. Lots of dragonflies and grasshoppers too fast to catch.

The eldest uncle worked his way to the fourth and lowest tier, where his sons were to be buried someday. I stayed away. It was mowed but not cleared of the dead grass. Someone said that no one was going to be hanging out where there aren’t any graves, we can just cut for appearance and let the grass stay where it lay. Then I commented on how beautiful the site was, and could I be buried there?

The uncles looked at each other and said “No”. “Why?” was my American response. It’s because women have to be buried with their husbands. You’ll be buried on another mountainside with his family, and your children will tend to your graves. But what if I don’t marry, and stay single? Then I’m still part of this family, yes? No, this family site is not for unmarried daughters but for married sons who produce children to tend the graves. Your children are supposed to take care of the site, and if you’re unmarried you don’t have any children. Well, I said, what if I have kids but stay unmarried? Then could I be buried here? They smiled and looked away from their dull American cousin.

I thought of a young unmarried Kwon woman already buried in Arvada, Colorado. I thought of an elderly Korean man, now divorced and who wanted to be buried next to her. I thought of one burial leading to the next, and the second site this family will have on the other side of the world. If a Kwon man didn’t want his grave, I didn’t know why I couldn’t take it. I would not have picked a better site if I had searched.

We finished the clearing by mid-afternoon. The uncles remark that my father has not yet visited this site since grandmother passed, and how my work that day was on his behalf. It was a small consolation that grew and grew upon hearing. And as everyone made his way down the mountainside, I lingered behind my grandmother’s headstone like a favored son.

© 2003 Hae Won Kwon
Introduction © 2003 Joe Beine | Contact
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