Celebrating a first - in traditional Korean style

June 20, 1999|By ROB KASPER

THE GUEST OF honor had not arrived when I walked into the Blue Garden restaurant. He might have been napping. But I quickly spotted photographs of him hanging on the walls.

U June So, the smiling lad in the photos, had reached the ripe age of 1. In keeping with Korean tradition, his family was throwing a party in his honor.

According to David So, U June's father, a child's first birthday is a major event in Korean families.

The event ranks right up there with two other landmarks in life, he said: when a child has lived 100 days, and when an adult has lived 60 years.

I visited the Glen Burnie restaurant, which sits across Ritchie Highway from La Fontaine Bleu, to watch preparations for U June's feast. When I walked into the restaurant, Hae Young, a waitress, was beating on a Korean drum. She was practicing for the evening's performance.

A co-worker, Nina Lee, held a brightly painted fan, which would be artfully waved -- not by her, she was quick to add -- in the fan dance, another part of the entertainment.

In the kitchen, preparations were under way to feed a crowd of 200 guests with fare ranging from battered, deep-fried vegetables; barbecued beef ribs; rockfish sashimi; buckwheat noodles; seaweed soup; and a variety of rice cakes, including one for good luck.

So told me there were several reasons his family was celebrating U June's birthday in such grand culinary style.

They were a restaurant family. They owned the Blue Garden. His father and mother, Chong So and Chong Mim So, had run the restaurant, then called the Peking Garden, for the last 13 years.

Now, So, who is 28, and his wife, Soomi So, are assuming primary responsibility for the business. Besides changing the name, they are emphasizing Korean fare. That, too, is cause for celebration, So said.

Also, while many Korean families celebrate the first birthday of a child, U June's arrival meant the family had someone to carry on the So name, he said.

"We have a big family tree, and carrying on the last name is very important," So said. "I was the last male, and if I didn't make it, ... our family name would have died."

Now, little U June, all 24 pounds of him, carries the So family legacy on his shoulders.

"My dad calls him 'Sato,' " said So, explaining that the term roughly translates into "the king" or "the main man."

Already, the lad has become an international traveler. A few months ago, he was taken to Seoul, Korea, where he was treated royally by cooing relatives. The Korean relatives also threw a birthday party for him. "My mother took him to Korea," So explained. "We had to stay here and work."

At U June's birthday celebration at the Blue Garden, he was toasted. Then, as the feast continued, he went upstairs to his grandparent's apartment above the restaurant and went to sleep.

Earlier in the day, U June's father reflected on what the future held for the birthday boy. So, son of a restaurateur, had been the first member of his family to graduate from college. His son would go to college and probably get a graduate degree, So predicted. That is how it works, he said, each generation builds on the accomplishments of the previous generation.

I wished him a Happy Father's Day.

Pub Date: 06/20/99

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