Saturday, October 30, 2010

When Korean babies have their 1st birthday...

Dad, mom and baby all dressed in Korean traditional clothing.

It wasn't that long ago, when Korea's economy was in drastic dire. They were a small country torn apart by the Japanese colonists and a civil war that never truly ended. It is hard to imagine this technologically advanced, highly ranked economic power desperate and in the midst of famine. Korea sprinted its way to the forefront of the world and has been battling it's way past superpowers. It is ranked 15th in the world economies. For this reason, Korea has been struggling with the delicate obligation of weaving it's past and present into a modern afghan with reflections of the past that don't seem too antiquated, while staying up with the times and/or ahead of the curve but without losing their heritage. It's been a difficult task, the knitting of a complicated and at times a bizarre project that doesn't have a clear pattern. The materials change, the colors don't always flow and sometimes the tug-a-war just tears it up all together. Occasionally it is thrown in the trash, but its eventually picked back up again and attempted again. It doesn't always seem to work out or mesh the way some think it should, but it is what makes Korea, Korea.

One of these traditions that is still celebrated today, which in today's modern Korea seems outdated and yet an important part of Korean heritage is the celebration of both the 100th day of a baby's birth and it's one year birthday celebration. In the past infant mortality rate was steep. So when a baby hit the 100th day of life, it's chances of survival were greatly increased demanding a need for a celebration. A party would ensue, that is if the infant wasn't sick, in which case no one would mention the 100th day for fear of relaying bad luck onto the child. Even though the infant mortality rate in Korea has decreased significantly thanks to advanced health care, mothers and families aren't in actuality concerned for each child's survival but still carry on the tradition of celebrating 100 days of life. I'm not sure if 100 has a significant meaning in Korea, because they also celebrate 100 days of dating for new couples.

Recently, Kyle, the other teachers of our school, and I were all invited to a birthday party. A 1st year birthday party, which is also a momentous marker in a person's life. The 100th day celebration is a small scale event with family and close friends, while the 1st year birthday party is an extraveganza on a scale similiar to a wedding. I'm not joking. There were at least 150 people at this child's birthday party with a delectable buffet fit for a Caesar and his armies. I asked my Korean friends, who were swooning at the thought of the day when they could also have their very own 1st birthday party for the little crumpet that they one day too would bring into the world, if this was a normal scale or if this was over the top. I was assured that this was quite normal.

"How much would something like this cost?" I asked in disbelief. I wondered how any parent could afford to have more than one child.
"It costs a lot of money, but it is payed for basically by the guests." one Korean teachers said.
Another chimed in, "Sometimes they even make money from these events. I know some who have not only not had to pay for anything, but went home with a profit."

Each person who attends a wedding or a 1st birthday party is expected to give a gift like we do in the states, except the gifts are normally not material goods, but in the form of cash. Beacoups of cash. Basically you are just paying for the meal and silly entertainment. Many of the Koreans gave the equivalent to $50 per person and that is average.

The set up was elaborate. They had photos probably of everyday of this child's life. I thought the picture tree was very cute. There was even a video shown at the end of the evening of the baby being dressed up for a full days shooting session. She was a star in the making.

Stuffing our faces. Soju was at every turn. It isn't a Korean party if there isn't soju.

All of the teachers who attended the party.

Isn't the cake beautiful. I don't think I ever tasted it. I am not sure in fact it was real.

There was of course a DJ and entertainment. Volunteers (our teachers) even the president were told to stand, and dance or bob their head. Each person wore a pedometer to record how much dancing and/or bobbing was done. The president stood their awkwardly before sitting down refusing to be silly while everyone else competed for the prize.
No rice cake on this plate. But there are mashed potatoes which I mistakenly though was a dessert. It's the one with chocolate syrup and sprinkles. Why would I think that was a dessert. How silly of me.

I don't have a picture of this, but one of the important aspects of a birthday party is the picking of the child's future career. A tray is presented to the baby and they are given a choice of objects. Depending on what they pick will determines what they become as adults. So the objects she was given were a microphone, money, pencil, string, book etc. They all have meaning; the mic-entertainer, pencil-scholar, string- long life, money- rich, book- writer etc. She choose two items. She choose money and the pencil which means she will be rich and a scholar. Unlikely, I would think.

Needless to say the event was a learning experience. We had fun, and went home with full tummies. One of my favorite aspects of living abroad is learning about other countries cultures. Its enlightening and makes one reflect on our own country and traditions.


Natalia said...

I've lived in places where they throw big parties for 1st birthdays but they don't even come close to this one!

hummer said...

I could have sworn I had followed your blog before. Thanks for stopping by and commenting on my blog. I love your chronicling of Korea. When I was a public health nurse I worked with several Korean families. They were really sweet.