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Celebrating Korean Culture

by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

The children and I had kites on the brain last year (from the U-M Center for Chinese Studies' fiftieth anniversary kite festival), so the first thing we noticed as we walked up to the Nam Center for Korean Studies' first Great Chuseok Party was all the little children running up and down the sidewalk in front of the School of Social Work Building. They were flying large rectangular white kites with sturdy stays, a big circle cut out of the center, and several tails. The kites fluttered, flew, crashed, fluttered, flew, crashed. The children kept running. I picked up an abandoned kite and examined how differently this Korean kite was constructed from the Chinese kites I had been learning to make.

Chuseok (pronounced choo-sock) is a Korean harvest festival that usually falls in September or October. Much like Thanksgiving and Moon Festival and Sukkot, it is a time for families to come together and celebrate the end of the harvest season. Just like we always have turkey at Thanksgiving, a big family feast with special Chuseok foods is also at the center of this holiday. Children play favorite games. Everyone takes time to enjoy the beauty of the full moon, the largest of the year (it's known as the harvest moon in the West).

The Nam Center's event is a celebration not only of the Chuseok festival but also Korean and Korean American culture. We enjoyed the wide variety of performances both traditional and contemporary, including Sinaboro, the U-M's well-known traditional Korean drumming troupe; a haunting and beautiful traditional salpuri dance based on shamanistic exorcism rituals performed by a graduate student in dance; KDM, a contemporary Korean dance troupe; and a group of b-boys breaking it down.

In another room, my teenage girls were drawn in by the weepy Korean dramas being shown on video, while eating Korean dates and rice cake snacks. Little Brother learned how to spin a Korean top and had fun playing a Korean dice game called yutnori.

What we all loved most, though, was making songpyeon. Songpyeon are half-moon shaped rice dumplings filled with sesame or sweet bean, sort of like a cross between mezzelune and mochi, or dumplings and yuanxiao. Sweet. Made with rice flour and stuffed, the dumplings are incredibly delicate to fold. Once cooked, they are deliciously bouncy, and the different colorings in the dough make for a festive treat. Guided by a humorous YouTube video, we made several songpyeon to take home and cook, but unfortunately we were not gentle enough to get them home in one piece. Little Brother insisted that we had to make more.

The Nam Center for Korean Studies' second annual Great Chuseok Party will be September 29.