Unseen Spirits

By Carlee Wright, a first-year ETA in Gyeongju

Dark rain clouds covered the sky as my host sister and I walked out of school—oddly symbolic of the evening that lay ahead. It was the anniversary of my host mother’s father’s passing, and we were traveling to Ulsan to visit the family and participate in a traditional Korean ritual—제사, jesa. I turned and told her with honesty that tonight would be a sad evening; I wanted her to know that I not only understood, but was also aware of the feelings that would surround the family that night. She turned to me, overtly unsure, and responded, “Sad?” I explained, “Yes, sad. Not happy, but sad.” I deliberately chose my words and simplified my explanations for easy understanding. Her head tilted to the side and her eyes rolled upward. “Why would it be sad?” she asked, puzzled. I clarified my words once again, stating, “Because your mom’s dad passed away today. He died.”

What she said next confused me. “But … my grandpa is coming tonight.” Huh? I must not have heard correctly. Or was it a different grandpa that was coming? For the sake of clarity, I asked my host sister again what exactly she meant. With a stronger tone of voice than before, she looked at me and repeated confidently, “My grandpa’s ghost will come tonight and visit the family. He will be there.”

Lauren Lin, “Yonsei Campus,” Songdo
Before arriving to the host uncle’s house later that night, my Western upbringing and personal biases regarding death slightly fogged my vision of the ceremony. I always believed that when a loved one died, they were gone forever. There was suddenly no way to communicate or hear from them again, which is precisely what made death so depressing. During 제사, however, most Korean families believe that a deceased loved one’s spirit will come visit for the evening after a short ceremony honoring them, and they can meet again.

When I walked into their home and exchanged greetings—인사, insa—with the family, some food was already prepared for the grandmother and the men. Even though I insisted on helping the other women prepare the remaining food for the ritual, I was continuously told to begin eating the first meal of the night: raw fish wrapped in lettuce and topped with red pepper paste—고추장, gochujang. Though I wished to help, I also did not want to overstep any cultural boundaries surrounding the ceremony. Once we finished what seemed like a full-course meal but was merely an appetizer, everyone began to set up the furniture arrangements for the proper ceremony.

My host family carefully unloaded a long wooden table with short legs, candle sticks with long, white, half-melted beams of wax jutting out of them, incense, wooden bowls, and elevated plates from plastic containers. These items later became the temporary resting place for sacrificial food and incense. I observed as the women in my family meticulously positioned fruits with the tops sliced off, which was done to make it easier for the grandfather’s spirit to consume the plethora of pears, grapes, apples, mandarins, and persimmons on the table. A whole octopus found its home in the left corner of the table and a myriad of fried fish and vegetables were situated next to it. Two bowls of rice were added, one with a set of chopsticks sticking straight up and the other with a spoon plunged right in the middle. My host mother thoughtfully poured Korean traditional rice wine and soju into wooden wine glasses. She made sure we purchased some at the convenience store before coming, as her father frequently enjoyed the drink. Lastly, a thin, cream-colored, traditional Korean curtain embellished with calligraphy I could not understand served as the backdrop.

Amanda Grant, “Settling Down,” Seogwipo
After the men lit the incense and rearranged the food to their satisfaction, we all chatted around the table and watched the clock. At exactly ten o’clock, the ritual began. I observed from a distance as each member of the family clasped their hands together as if they were praying, bowed to the ground, and then released their hands and placed them on the floor parallel to their heads. They repeated this process two more times.

I could not help but tear up as I watched the events take place. My own grandfather passed away last year, and the pain is still fresh. Yet I quickly realized I was the only person tearing up in the room, and when my host family noticed they simply giggled and called me over to join. Like them, I bowed three times and then joined in on pouring rice wine from one wooden wine glass to the other. Even though I was sad thinking about my own grandfather, I was inspired by the smiles and positivity surrounding me. I felt a sudden comfort regarding his death. Everyone truly believed they were in the presence of a beloved relative; in that moment I was convinced I was too.