Today, it’s my birthday. I’m 42, but if I go by my Korean age, I’ll be 48 or more no doubt. Basically, the way the Koreans do the age thing is like this:
1. Everyone, at the moment of birth, is one year old.
2. Everyone adds an age at New Year’s Day. (Either on the solar one or lunar one, depending what people celebrate.)
They don’t mix the Western and Korean method together. Plus, the Western method is used for all official counting purposes (birth and death certificates etc). So, now you know.
Today, also happens to be the winter solstice or dong-ji (동 지) when we have the shortest daylight hours, but after today we see longer daylight hours and the whole yin and yang thing starts balancing out once again. It’s also traditional on that day (and during the winter in general) to eat patjuk (팥죽) red bean porridge. Not being much a traditionalist, I’ve cunningly managed to give patjuk a bit of a body swerve on almost all of the birthdays I’ve had whilst in Korea. It’s not bad, but I’d rather have a bit of carrot cake (just finished a piece with a cup of coffee) or just a piece of good old birthday cake. That said, the story behind why patjuk’s eaten is quite interesting if you’re into that kind of thing.
However, my favourite weird thing that Korean’s do (well, it’s in the top 3) is called go-sa(고사). It’s not that weird to me now, but when I first came to Korea you could say it definitely took me by surprise. I remember I used to teach a private lesson twice a week near Kyung Hee University which was about 20-30 minutes away from where I was living at the time. I’d jump on the bus for 450 Won (which was criminally cheap), get off 15 minutes later, then walk through one of the old subway stations on the number 1 line. It was a right dump, with just the 2 exits either side of the tracks, then about another 10 minutes to the university for lunch and a chat.
After a few weeks I decided to vary the route a wee bit and see what else there was in the local area. So, getting off the bus one stop earlier, then walking through more of the back streets I came across a sight to behold. Outside one of the shady-looking ‘shops’ I noticed an older woman washing something in a huge basin and it wasn’t her smalls. Upon closer inspection there were about half a dozen or more pig’s heads being doused down in cold water. “What the **** is that all about?”, I mumbled to myself. The lady didn’t take that much notice of me, then I saw that there were about another 2 or 3 of these places in the same street. Not really a butcher’s shop as we’d know it, but something that more resembled the kind of place you’d end up if you owed a gangster a lot of money and couldn’t pay up.
I scurried along to my appointment and told my friend Dr. Bill about my most recent discovery. I remember him asking me if it freaked me out (I’m paraphrasing) and I said not really, but it was a bit weird and that it’s not really the kind of thing we’re used to seeing in Western countries, especially in what you could consider a residential neighbourhood. Bill went on to explain to me that what the pig’s heads in particular were used for and the cultural significance of it all.
As it turns out, the pig’s heads are bought by people who are starting a new business venture or moving into a new house( and so on and so forth) and originates from a Shaman ritual that was supposed to scare away bad luck, evil spirits, and
interfering mother-in-laws. The best part of the whole thing was that you wanted to get hold of a pig’s head that was smiling. The better the smile, the more chance of success (or less chance of failure? – Scottish optimism?). Like this…
Your guests would then place some money in the pig’s mouth (or ears), do a little ceremony thing, then get stuck into the pig and wash it down with some rice wine liquor. Cool, huh? Well, unless you’re the unlucky, smiling pig?
Koreans also believe that pigs represent fertility (as well as money) as the Chinese character meaning pig ((I can’t do Chinese yet…) is pronounced as ‘don’, which is the Korean word for ‘money’. All makes sense now, eh? If anyone’s interested you can buy a pig’s head for anything between $10-30, depending on the smileyness of the pig.
Well, enjoy your Winter Solstice and I’ll be back with more soon. That means less than 5 months, but I have good reasons for that…