Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Hanok Thanksgiving

            We are out in the middle of nowhere with the darkness of morning broken only by a slow creamy orange sunrise. Stars still shine in the cold half-night sky, pale blue streaked with the brown-grey clouds. The floor beneath my sleeping pad and blanket is warm, heated by boiling water pushed through pipes. A sliding door is closed against the chill, but outside the smooth wood of the wraparound traditional Korean deck welcomes socked feet. Hanoks—traditional Korean houses—are sparse, and this hanok, tucked away on the ledge of a mountain is the essence of peace.
            Before the sun has crested the peach-fuzz profile of the far hills, the owner is up, building a fire. The rest is silence, so different from the bus-ridden existence of our city down the coast. It took three buses, a subway, a twenty-minute hike up a mountain and a merciful car owner to get us all the way out here with our various Thanksgiving accoutrements. Real Thanksgiving was spent in mid-week isolation—each of us fenced in by metal and wall, holed up in our cell-like apartments after a day of work.
            When the weekend rolled around, an early Saturday morning and the arduous trek away from modern life in a Korean city was a gift. Forget “thankful;” I was rejoicing. Tile-roofed homes nestled between curving roads and homey gardens of rice and greens, wood smoke and shoes slipped off on the stones below the deck. Through the sliding door, turkeys were cleaned and stuffed, potatoes were mashed, greens were casseroled, pies baked. We talked, we lazed, we went for walks and in the evening, dinner was served with laughter and the usual slice of appreciation.
            There was no football on the television we didn’t have, or an afternoon nap with my mom and beagle snoring softly in the lazy-boy like there might have been back home in Indiana. The stuffing was plain old Stove Top and the gravy a little congealed. The turkeys were small, uncarved by my dad’s skilled hands, tidbits stolen by me and my older sister as we strolled through the tiled kitchen. There were no familiar family squabbles. We didn’t turn on It’s a Wonderful Life after the last piece of pie was eaten, and there were no plans to get the Christmas tree up the following day—only three buses, a subway, a twenty-minute hike, and our cell-like apartments jammed into cement waiting for us.
            But how can that matter when you wake up to the cold shadow of the moon and the warm snickering of a steady sunrise? How can that matter when inside the floor is warm and the outside air delicious on the door with in its icy breath? Tell me, how can it when the “we” that wakes up with you, packs together, bundles themselves into coats and gloves and waits for the bus with you is your family too?
            We sat in the middle of nowhere together. The sun rose and the chill happily stayed, my heart aching for the joy of something the sun couldn’t bring, nor the chill explain—something wrapping me up in cords of mountains and clouds and waves of gratitude for a Thanksgiving spent far away at home.
Our hanok

Making the stuffing. The boys did most of the work.
I believe the girls were drinking hot cocoa in the next room
at this point.
Thanksgiving spread 
Carrying an oven across the country like a champ.


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  2. Very beautifully expressed. Thanksgivings that are spent away from family and working away from the US amidst populations with no frame of reference for our family driven holiday feel strange. Some of those different Thanksgivings with 'adoptive' families stick out in my memory as very special even after so many years have passed.