Few holidays are as important as the Lunar New Year in Korea. Like many East Asian countries, this holiday is a massively important celebration that signifies a new year and a communal birthday. 설날(Seollal), or the Lunar New Year in Korea, is a familial holiday where families travel to see their eldest relatives and eat a special soup that adds a collective year of age to all Koreans. While traveling around the Korean peninsula on holiday for Seollal, we road tripped up to Gangwon-do’s jewel, Seoraksan, and explored the surrounding area. While driving snowy roads through beautiful farmland, we stumbled upon signs for a Buddhist temple and decided to follow their lead.
We came to this temple looking to fill our Lunar New Year’s Day with photos of snow capped temple roofs and scenery. The temple was gorgeous and the snow filled my camera’s viewfinder surrounding the main buildings. Two dogs chased each other around in the snow while we wandered the temple grounds and eventually a monk arrived and gave us a few nods before entering the lodge building. While I continued walking around and photographing the paintings that covered every eave, the monk called to Stephanie and indicated that we should join him inside. Unwilling to deny the request of a monk and terribly curious, we both removed our shoes and followed him into a small room with a table and place settings for tea. Communicating in broken English and Korean, we established the basic elements of introduction. As he started to make tea we told him where we were from, where we lived, and what we did for a living. He didn’t speak English beyond a few words and we don’t speak much Korean, so the whole conversation was more humorous than informative.
The tea steamed from its pot while four Koreans in their 50′ s joined us. The new additions to the party seemed apprehensive as they joined us at the table as they didn’t speak much English, either. We all settled into the awkward silence of the room while the monk proceeded to pour tea. Around this time one of the joining Koreans noticed that my legs don’t bend and fold as well as they should for the tables often used for dining in Korea. While I stood up to show him my height and begin the often hilarious pantomime of how my legs are too long for Korea, everyone began to laugh and the monk suggested 세베 (sebe). Sebe is the formal bowing that takes place for your elders on special holidays. Since the Lunar New Year is a very important holiday, Koreans across the peninsula were bowing to their ancestors for praise and sometimes money. This show of respect is a spiritual experience that we had first witnessed during our Korean marriage. This show of respect is second to none in Korea and is reserved for very special occasions. While we bowed to the floor for the monk, fulfilling his joking request, he produced a pouch from his robes. While the six of us recovered from our prostrations on the floor, he began to count out money, ten dollars for each of us that would serve as a reward for our show of respect. In many Korean households, the family will all bow to the grandparents and the children will be rewarded with cash. As a humorous gesture, the monk made sure to reward us for our bowing at his humorous request.
The rest of the time we spent at this man’s table was spent with an air of family. Little was said beyond broken and interpreted meaning, but all was level and even among us. This display of welcome, kindness, and warmth is known in Korea as 정 (jeong). Jeong is a sense of togetherness and hospitality that Koreans sometimes show out of obligation. At various times in our stay in Korea have we experienced groups of locals that invited us to join them for drinks, food, company, and laughter. Some of these expressions of jeong have been thinly veiled attempts to get drunk with foreigners, and then there are times where our hosts imply wanted to make sure that we felt comfortable and at home in the “Land of the Morning Calm.” Although we have experienced jeong a handful of times, this was the most unexpected and most warmly presented. These people had no reason to invite us, as strangers, into their tea ceremony but they did so emphatically. These people were amazing and made for an excellent experience for Seollal. We are forever grateful for the experiences we’ve had in this country and even more taken by some of the people we’ve encountered. For the sharing of jeong and the Korean experience I’ve always dreamed of, thank you friends for your kindness, your ten dollars, and Happy Seollal.