By Carlee Wright, a first-year ETA in Gyeongju
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.”
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.
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.