Feeling a sense of belonging in a room full of strangers
Chuseok and celebrating a non-traditional Thanksgiving in a foreign culture
Koreans celebrated Chuseok last month, arguably the most important holiday of the year here. Finally, people can take a break from work responsibilities, and start taking care of their responsibilities at home, like making food for days. I had 10 days off from work and I was excited. It was a very rare and long holiday. It goes without saying, I promptly got sick immediately after the break started. My Chuseok holiday wasn’t looking too exciting. I had no idea I’d be celebrating a non-traditional Thanksgiving soon enough.
As quiet days in my one-room apartment passed one by one, I started to feel a tinge of sadness. Holidays away from friends and family do this to me. To make matters feel worse, Chuseok is a Thanksgiving of sorts where people reconnect with family and friends. But none of my Korean friends had invited me to a gathering. Conversely, my family in the US often invited people to come and celebrate with a big meal at our home. We made friends with some Thai women visiting my parents’ small town, and they came to Thanksgiving at our home. They still talk about the turkey decades later. But no one here had offered for me to crash their celebrations.
In another way, I was quite grateful. It was great to be away from the hustle and bustle of the school environment I work in. Despite being sick, I was getting a lot of writing and thinking done. Going to people’s family celebrations can be gratifying, but it can also be tiring, after all. Communication through language barriers takes a lot of patience.
A chance to leave my apartment
I heard about a performance and Moroccan dinner on the weekend. Although I didn’t know much about the details, the Moroccan food appealed. I asked a friend from work if she wanted to go. She said yes, and we found ourselves on countryside bus, winding along the coast as the sun waned, on a Saturday evening.
We got to the neighborhood where the performance would take place and decided to explore the shore beforehand. The sun was setting over the water in golden tones, and the water was a bright blue. We strolled around a small harbor of sorts, with squid boats and many fishing nets, ropes and other supplies stored in buildings. We walked out toward the water and watched a couple take photos of the sunset on their cellphones. Romantic.
After the sun fell into the water, we headed back toward where the house should be. Although my friend wanted to call the homeowners to clarify where the house was, I pointed out the addresses on each building. I said I thought we should just look around, and sure enough we found the house shortly after. We walked through a volcanic rock fence into a yard with Tibetan prayer flags strung across it. Two non-conformist men looked back kindly. They did not look like bankers and my heart skipped a beat. I felt happy about being in this place, so unlike my day-to-day existence.
Just after us, my ex-high-school student showed up. Randomly, he is on break in Jeju and wanted to try the Moroccan food, too, as he is a chef. I was excited to see him and hear more about his life.
We walked into the abode, which was built with low, organically shaped ceilings and little cubbyhole rooms. A man ushered us into one of them and we sat around low tables on the floor. To my right was my friend Erika, and other interesting people filed into the intimate space. An architect to my left insisted we share some makkoli (fermented rice wine) with him. Soon, a quiet man with glasses came to serve our dinner. He was welcoming, yet reserved. We had a chicken tagine dish, some dense and delicious whole grain flatbread, green hummus and a tomato, cucumber and onion salad. There was hot mandarine tea after that.
The performance came next
Shortly after, the performance began. Omar, the Moroccan guitarist, played trippy music in one room, surrounded by yellow light. Suddenly, Ramoo the host and performer, appeared, like an apparition, in the other room to the right of Omar. He had white paint over his face and body, and he moved in time to the music. As Omar’s voice crescendoed, his movements became more exaggerated. A bead of sweat formed on Ramoo’s forehead, and his head and arms created dramatic shadows on the ceiling. A low wail began to emanate from one of the viewers. There was something ethereal about the combination of music, dance, light, and the physical closeness of the audience.
The woman kept crying, and after two songs, the performance ended. We felt sated but still were left wanting a bit more. We planned to leave but a suddenly very outgoing Ramoo urged us to change our minds. “Come on, stay! ” he said.
The next wave of the evening
My friend and I were urged to come sit at a table on the lawn outdoors. There was more food on the table, and the men were drinking. They wanted a critique of the performance. Erika and I obliged. The full moon and bright yard lights made the grass look neon green. Candles on the table created a yellowy glow.
After sitting outside for a time, Ramoo ushered us into the small room where he had performed earlier. We sat and talked for hours. Luckily, Erika is a good translator. It was good to talk with men outside the general confines of society. We talked about the obsessive and strict educations that many small children receive here, and how they didn’t agree with that approach. We talked about music, relationships, and Jeju. I felt really honored to have the chance to talk with these people. And I was surprised to feel such a strong sense of belonging with a group of people I had never met before.
A lack of expectations helped make the night a success
I had no real expectations for the evening, except a hope for some good food. Maybe this was the key which resulted in such a strong sense of community in a room full of strangers. What I got was much more than a full stomach. I had my own version of a Thanksgiving celebration and didn’t feel left out anymore.
Since we ended up staying much later than planned, one of the other guests offered to drive us home. It was really the perfect ending to the night. I added it to my list of things I was grateful for.
Have you ever had an unplanned experience like this before? Tell me about it below.