The room is empty when I wake up--just the bed and mismatched wallpaper. I look around for Sam. After nearly two months in our new apartment, it's still strange having him out of my line of sight. I hear a clank from the other side of the bedroom door and open it, muzzy, confused by the warm smells from the kitchen. "Good morning, sleepy." Sam stands over the gas range, spatula in hand.

I zombie-shuffle over to give him a hug. "What smells so good?"

He lifts the lid off the frying pan. "Sweet potato hash browns. I'm making brunch," he says. "Go back to bed. Happy Chuseok."

I burrow back into the covers, aware that this undermines my purported cultural awareness. The female of the species should not sleep in on Chuseok.


Often described as the Korean Thanksgiving, Chuseok is a three-day national holiday; two for travel, one for the celebration itself. The whole country makes a trek to their parents', grandparents', or  in-laws' house for a festival of family togetherness. On travel days, the freeways are giant parking lots of traffic. On the celebration day, the streets are as empty as Green Bay during a Packer game.

Last week, a very young student asked how I'd drive to my grandma's house with an ocean in the way. It was inconceivable to him that I might not make the trip. The best explanation I could assemble in Korean was that driving to America would be very, very expensive. He accepted this. Kids know there's a relationship between Chuseok and money.

The central focus of the Chuseok ceremony is bowing to one's ancestors. But the children also bow to their adult relatives. These aren't the normal dips from the waist, but full-on, King and I face-plants. This shows their respect and obedience, and the adults reward this with cash. The amount increases with a child's age: elementary school gets $10 a pop. High schoolers can net up to $50. I used 'Chuseok' as a Pictionary word in class, and every student drew a prostrate stick figure and stacks of won.

Songpyeon, the traditional Chuseok rice cake
Songpyeon, the traditional Chuseok rice cake

Once the bowing is out of the way, the women vanish into the kitchen to cook and cook and cook, while the men drink beer and play cards. Or so Korean women tell me. My coworkers spent last week muttering about their in-laws, or how much they dreaded being anywhere near a hot stove in swirly traditional dresses.

"But hanbok are so beautiful," I protested. "You look like butterflies."

My compliment was brushed aside as ignorance. "They are inconvenient." This was their final word on the subject.

We're both right.
We're both right.


But our Chuseok doesn't involve traffic jams or frantic kitchen marathons or running to the ATM for cash hand-outs. I'll probably spend the whole day in pajamas, the most convenient clothes I know, reading and relaxing. It's a fantastic way to pass a holiday, though I find myself wishing mine was a little less empty. Chuseok is a time for family, and mine is far away.

Sam calls from the kitchen, reminding me I'm not wholly without. I've got a husband and a stack of hash browns waiting. And later, just to get into the spirit of the season, I think I'll do the dishes.