Chuseok and the Art of Survival for an Expat Living in Korea

“Everything closes down. Everything!” “Don’t travel! Everything is jammed up!” “Don’t starve!” People have a lot of advice for how to survive the Korean holiday Chuseok.

For those not savvy on Korean holidays, Chuseok (추석) is a traditional holiday that occurs with the harvest and is often called the Korean Thanksgiving. Families travel en masse out of the city of Seoul to their childhood areas to visit with relatives and to honor their ancestors. If you are familiar with Thanksgiving in America, then, you might now understand some of the warnings given to me about Chuseok, especially for a foreigner like myself who had no family to go visit and no sites to honor.

And just like Thanksgiving in America, I got a five-day weekend that ended up being just glorious. Thank goodness for the government encouraging people to not work so they can shop and spend, right?

Anyway, the morning of Chuseok was Thursday. Wednesday, Danny and I didn’t really do much but lie around because we were exhausted and just wanted to sleep; we did end up getting groceries as people advised, and we also walked up and down a stream that’s nearby my apartment that has a really nice connection to a few mountains and other recreational activities like badminton, basketball, and outdoor exercise equipment.

But back to Thursday: One of my students, to her credit, did something incredibly kind for me. Over Chuseok, many locations have little festivals or events to celebrate the traditions and to teach foreigners or Koreans about what it is they celebrate; however, most of these, even though they advertise as foreigner-friendly, do not have English translations on their web-pages, which makes it incredibly hard for this foreigner to know exactly when those events were taking place on any given day.

My student took it upon herself to translate an entire website’s schedule and itinerary for me so that I could make plans for myself. These are the things I’ll miss about Korea — the frequency with which people do time-intensive kind acts for each other.

Celebrating Chuseok at the Namsangol Hanok Village Festival

So Danny and I went to Namsangol Hanok Village at the base of Namsan (the Southern Mountain; nam=Southern and san=Mountain. If you understand that buk means “north” and han means “Korea,” then can you understand Bukhansan now?) in Seoul. There were many performances on the main stage, tons of people playing traditional Korean games with their children, and many hands-on activities you could learn how to do yourself.

The entrance to the village with the festival banner
Danny was pro (not really. But he did manage to get one in! Those were hard!)
That structure was where we made Songpyeon. In the background, you can see Namsan and N Seoul Tower.
Our favorite performers
They were cool too (my video sucks though. Sorry! I was holding it over my head and halfway through it ends up focusing on that white guy in front taking pictures. Blast it all.)
Songpyeon making! It is tteok (rice cake) with sesame sugar filling. Danny didn’t like his (he thought the sugar was like sand) but it wasn’t bad. Those are some Russian foreign exchange students next to us.

N Seoul Tower: Climbing Namsan

Afterward, we climbed Namsan, which was basically a heckuvalotta stairs. A bit more structured than Bukhansan, and a whole lot smaller. N Seoul Tower sits at its summit and offers a smorgasbord of different restaurants and things to purchase (as is befitting of a mountain, apparently). Namsan is also a huge spot for lovers and couples, and you can buy a lock, write a note on it, and lock it to the ironworks around the tower as a good luck charm, kind of like how the bridge in London used to be.

A rest area at the top of the summit for all those weary hikers.
One sample of the locks. Don’t worry. This is just a small fraction of them. They were everywhere.
The view by the mountain beacons. If you look, beyond the city, you’ll actually see the Bukhansan National Park with its mountains. It was really cool seeing the opposite view from last week, albeit from much closer and lower.
The tower itself. We didn’t go up. That costs money (but I did get postcards!).

That night we ran into some Asian-Americans on a trip from Los Angeles who asked us (on the subway) if I spoke English, which was hilarious to me at the time. Thinking about it later, there’s no way to tell if someone is an American here (and if you can, it’s probably a bad thing) since Americans look like people from everywhere. They had questions about the city and teaching and we were able to help them out, making us feel sort of like experts at Korea for once. Don’t worry; I still have no idea what I’m doing.

Visiting the Zoo and Seoul Forest

Friday, we skipped around Seoul Zoo at Seoul Grand Park and then Seoul Forest. The zoo is over 100 years old, dating from 1909, and here’s some sad trivia for you: During WWII, the Japanese decided to poison the animals there, killing off over 150 of them. Those that survived had to survive until the end of the war since the zookeepers fled. Woof.

Seoul Forest is a park and nature area where people can flee the city and take a peaceful walk, read a book, have a picnic, or play various sports. There are sculptural areas and pieces of art or playgrounds strewn around kind of haphazardly, and any sign that says not to walk somewhere is completely ignored, resulting in sizable desertification of the grassy areas.

The view of the long walk up to the zoo. Beautiful area. You can take a ski-lift to the other end of the park, but there was a huge line, and though many were leaving for that side, no one was coming back. We were suspicious.
I swear, this is where Jurassic Park was filmed. It wouldn’t surprise me.
Danny’s favorite.
Seoul Forest signage.
Gotta train those kids from a young age for the military… I’ll discuss that in a different post though.
One beautiful area of Seoul Forest. The rest had too many people.

Checking Out Seoul National University

Saturday was a bit more low-key. We decided to visit Seoul National University (SNU), only two subway stops away from me and considered to be the most prestigious university in Korea. Depending on what ranking you follow, it has been considered the 4th best university in all of Asia and 50th worldwide. With about 27,000 students, it pulls from over 40 countries. The campus slopes gently up against the sides of the surrounding mountains and along the accompanying river and has many trails stretching away from it and up the mountain, or areas where you can picnic by the riverside. To put it simply, the campus is gorgeous with nice views and well-constructed buildings.

Bikers and hikers were common sights as we trekked our way up the main drag which stretched entirely around the campus along the mountain’s incline. These students are probably among the fittest ever. Afterward, we met up with the two main leaders of HR in our school. We had a great time chatting in Gangnam over some delicious bingsu at Holly’s Coffee, one of the more popular places in Korea.

The gate of campus in the shape of the three-lettered acronym of its Korean name.
You know, a court and a rock climbing wall with a mountain in the background and a stream to the side. No biggie.
A beautiful view. See the mountains and the city of Seoul in the rear field.
This was the campus’s amphitheater. Gorgeous.
In the center of campus. We had a professor come up to us right after this (we were pinned against a koi pond) and evangelize to us about Jesus. It was definitely an experience.
Such good company and such good bingsu!

Changing of the Guard at Deoksugung

Sunday was sadly the last day of break, but we began it early by meeting up with our bud Seongmin and seeing Magnificent 7 with him at a movie theater. The movie itself was packed with a lot of action, but I’ve always wanted a little bit more than simply action to my movies. We had lunch, and then we went our separate ways.

Danny and I were able to get the third of the five great Joseon Palaces off our list, Deoksugung near City Hall. It is the only palace complex that, having been added to around 1900, has Western-styled buildings. The area itself was quickly modernized by the king, and Washington D.C. was one of its model cities. I’m sure you couldn’t guess at that though. It was a beautiful area, and all in all, made to a great end to our weekend since we got to see another changing of the guard. What else did we do that long weekend? We watched lots of movies. Had to relax at some point, amiright?

What About You?

What advice were you given for surviving abroad during Chuseok? Or, what did you contrive to keep yourself busy? Did a Korean family “adopt” you? Let me know your Chuseok experiences below!

Until next time, friends!

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