A celebration of food and of family

Young and old gather for a holiday not unlike Thanksgiving


Kevin Seo's family likes to mix it up at Thanksgiving. Some years, they go the turkey route, other years they dine on kimchi.

"Sometimes we do it the American way, sometimes the Korean way," said Kevin, a 15-year-old Columbia resident who emigrated from Korea five years ago with his family and who retains a taste for the spicy cabbage dish that is a staple Korean food.

This year, his celebration of the Korean way was part of an event putting the spotlight on the Bethel Korean School in Ellicott City, a cultural school that teaches Korean language, traditions and arts, and is sponsored by the Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church.

The school, which meets once a week, took part this most recent Friday in Chuseok, a Korean holiday focused on family and feasting that is equivalent in many ways to Thanksgiving Day in the United States.

Kevin and hundreds of other young Korean-Americans played games, created traditional arts and crafts and ate food typical of the holiday, believed to have been first celebrated more than 2,000 years ago and now held each year on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month.

Linda Won, an assistant principal at the school, said a major reason for holding the celebration was concern that one of Korea's most important holidays was poorly understood by many of the school's students.

"They are forgetting about Korean things," she said.

In Korea, people return to their ancestral homes during Chuseok to reunite with family, pay respects to their ancestors and - in keeping with harvest festivals the world over - stuff themselves on the season's bounty. "It's a huge thing, and there are so many kinds of food," said Kevin.

The most famous Chuseok food, symbolic of the holiday as turkey is of the American Thanksgiving, is songpyeon, small, crescent-shaped cakes typically made from rice flour and stuffed with sesame seeds or a sweet paste made from red beans.

Kevin likes the cakes and other Korean foods, especially the spicy ones. His favorite dish at the festival was a type of rice cake pan-broiled in a hot pepper sauce with a flavor similar to that of kimchi, a spicy dish made with cabbage.

But Kevin's taste for Korean food isn't universal among his peers. He said that many of the young Korean-Americans he knows have a different opinion of Korean food, particularly the specialty foods that are cooked only during the holidays.

"Most of them think it's kind of weird," he said. He has also noticed other differences between Korea and America.

"The culture is really different," he said. "In Korea, young people really listen to their elders."

Getting the students involved in their families' traditional culture is important, according to Jae Yang, a church elder who oversees the school.

"Even though they live in America, there are many things they can learn from Korean tradition," he said.

Yang said encouraging a taste for the cuisine isn't the only way the school is trying to keep Korean culture alive in Howard County. Passing on the language and other cultural traditions to the approximately 250 children that attend the school requires exposing them to the culture directly, he said.

The Chuseok festival, the first the school has held since it started offering classes 21 years ago, was a way to get the students involved, especially because it is a holiday in which children's games play a big role.

"A lot of kids have never seen these games," he said, watching the children career around school rooms, each of which offered a different game. "This is a very real thing for them."

In one room, children played a game in which they threw painted wooden sticks on the ground and, depending on whether the pictures landed face up, moved pieces around a game board. In another room, they used small seesaws to launch each other into the air, a game that in Korea is typically reserved for girls and involves bigger seesaws - and more air time.

The "chicken game," in which the participants held one leg off the ground and hopped around trying to knock the other players off balance, was a favorite of Kevin Kim of Clarksville.

Yang said 10-year-old Kevin is a good example of how Korean culture can remain vital in the United States. Kevin can speak and write in Korean, though his family moved to America when he was 1 1/2 years old. He has a black belt in the Korean martial art of tae kwon do. He even liked the spicy rice cake dish served at the festival, though his favorite meal, he said, consists of his mother's chicken sandwiches.

Eleven-year-old Linsey Kim of Woodbine seemed to be another success story of the school. Despite the difficulties she and her friends have had learning to speak Korean in this country, she thinks it's worth the effort.

"We want to communicate with our parents more and understand them better," she said, then ran off with a pack of other girls to learn more about celebrating Thanksgiving - the Korean way.

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