Monday, September 15, 2008

So, Roboseyo, what is a 제사?

Warning to my family: be ready for this one. It's about Mom/Jane.

Soundtrack: Bach, BWV 1068: "Air" 

OK. So here's the thing. Last Monday, September 8th, was the three year anniversary of my mother's death.

All week, I'd been in a bit of a funk; especially this weekend: between eating the heavy, tomatoey, beefy leftovers from the housewarming party (more on that later), sitting around instead of doing stuff for Chusok vacation, and it being the three year anniversary of my mother's passing. . . I felt a bit blue: this was sticking in my brain, and I didn't know what to do about it: we Canucks don't really have a ritual that handles this particular situation, and sorry, dear readers, but a whiny blog post just doesn't do my mom justice.  

Fortunately, I mentioned this to Girlfriendoseyo, and even MORE fortunately, her culture DOES have something precisely for those times when, no matter how long it is past the loss of a loved one, you still CAN do something about it.  It's called Jesa - 제사 and it's basically a tribute to the dead.  (It's not the same one people do for Chusok and New Years, but it's there, in the handbook of Korean rituals and rites for the ancestors.)

Now don't anybody think I've switched out and decided to become an ancestor-worshipper or anything -- I've spent the entire week leading up to Chusok explaining to my students that the Chusok rites for the ancestors aren't really so much worship as paying respect to the dead, and yes, I DO think there's a difference.
Even then, I would argue that this jesa was a different beast again than what Koreans do on the anniversaries of their loved ones, not least because Mom wouldn't feel comfortable with me going the whole nine yards and scouring the city to find her exact favourite foods, the way one ought to for a proper Jesa.  Sorry, but Dutch bakeries are few and far between in Korea, even in Seoul, and I think she'd let that slide; however, I also think that she'd be comfortable with me performing a mini-jesa, for the sake of giving release to these weird pangs that have been bugging me this week.

So no, I'm not repudiating Jesus' blood, or blaspheming Allah, or pissing on the rituals the good Buddha and Confucius have left behind for us,  nor am I declaring loyalty and devotion to Mom, as if she were the one who could speed my way through purgatory and lead me on the path to enlightenment.  It's my mom, a human being, like the others; settle down there.
I'm just finding a way to say goodbye, even though it's long after we westerners (mistakenly) figure that one ought to have moved on, even though some goodbyes never actually end -- 'cause you know, Mom's not gonna be at my wedding, period.  And dammit, I should be allowed to feel bad about that from time to time, and if Korea has a ritual designed specifically for this kind of thing. . . sweetums!

So, I bought a tray and a candle and a bowl -- of the bowls in the shop, I intentionally chose the one Mom would probably have bought (no almond rings. . . but I'll at least do that much).

What I bought:

I boiled up some spaghetti noodles, and put on Bach's "Air on a G-String" -- funny name, but an important meaning in our family.  If you hit play up at the top, you're listening to it now.

I got together a few pictures of Mom that I like, and set up the incense, the candle, and the pictures by the window.  Why the window?  Just seemed like the right place:
If any of you know how a real Jesa goes, and what I did wrong, I'll kindly ask you to stay out of it.  This was something I had to do, and its meaning for me and how I feel about my departed mother has nothing to with whether the tray was oriented in the right compass direction, or whatever else I got wrong.

One thing I know: Koreans stand their chopsticks up in their rice when they honour their ancestors.  It's harder to get a fork and spoon (no knife: see that, dad?) to stand up in a bowl of spaghetti -- but I at least got one picture of it before I set them down.
I lit the candle, set the music on "repeat" and sat.
(camera flash: then I turned off the light)
I sat on the floor and missed my mom for a while, and it was exactly what I needed to do.

I'm not going to go into an extended breakdown of all the wonderful things my mother was (though she was); I also won't go into an extended explanation of the wonderful women who have been good-hearted enough to fill in the vacancy as surrogate-mothers (Raema and Kelly aka Mom Schneider and Mom Finlayson) and step-mother (Mary-Anna), even though they are all wonderful. 

Instead, I'll just leave it at this: I feel better now, and however I go about doing it, Mom deserves to be missed from time to time.  I'm sure she has much better things to do than check whether the spaghetti I set out for her was leftover or fresh -- I mean, if heaven's so boring its inhabitants could be bothered to check how their descendants are honouring them back on earth, why the heck are we being good, trying to get there?  And yeah, I've probably butchered the ritual about as badly as can be, but I don't give a rip, because I feel better now.

Love you Mom.  Hope you're having a great time over heavenwards, but you're still missed here on planet Roboseyo.

(Mom's Eulogy here)


Anonymous said...

Your ritual provides some relief for the days ahead (Papa is still fighting- but has been pretty sick lately- talking about heaven, etc). Being reminded that missing and grieving those that have gone to heaven before us is comforting, renewing my freedom to be sad sometimes.


elizabeth said...

This is very normal and good.

It is similear to one of the treasures I have found personally in the Orthodox church... we pray for the departed; after Easter we sing Christ is Risen to them at thier grave; when we have a panahedia for them (requiem) for the anniversary of their death, there is prayer, song, mourning, candles, hope and a bread that is eatten and given to others to eat.

Memory Eternal.

JIW said...

What a sweet gesture~

Anonymous said...

This was a beautiful post, I think being able to take this ritual from Korean culture and adapt it for your own purposes is really great.

So many of us expats travel and live in different places so that we can try to take things from those places, people and cultures to make ourselves and our lives richer and better.

You've reminded me again of my real purpose in Korea.

Thank you. :)

melissa v. said...

hey friend! Thank you for the phone call on the weekend~sorry I missed you!!
I love this personal adaptation of a traditional ritual. Very beautiful. Your mom was/is a very wonderful person, and I'm sorry she's gone. Love you.

The Korean said...

Not going to go into how a proper jesa is to be done, although my fingers are itching... I will just tell you that your instinct of setting the food near the window was in accordance with the tradition: the spirit needs a way in to your house to enjoy the food.

Roboseyo said...

To everyone, I appreciate your support.

To the Korean: I also appreciate your restraint.

To Jessica: hang in there, eh? I hope you're surrounded by a lot of really loyal and supportive people. It gets harder, a lot harder, before it gets better.

The Korean said...

Actually, upon reading this again, my comment sounds really obnoxious. Sorry Rob. I only meant to say that you have the spirit of the ceremony right. After all, that's the only thing that matters.

Roboseyo said...

Hi, The Korea, I didn't pick that up at all. Don't worry; your comment was appreciated.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I ought to check your blog more often. This entry was really well done and touching.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Roboseyo said...

You mean you haven't set my blog as your homepage yet? There's no excuse, Mr. Hodges!

I can't guarantee I'll always clear the bar I've set with this post. . . but if I don't, I have a money-back guarantee.

Seriously, though, thanks. I was apprehensive about posting this one, because it's more personal than generalizing about Korea ranting about expats, but the response has been really edifying so far.

Wondosama said...

Your style jesa looks beautiful. I even couldn't notice that foreigners don't have 제사.

Roboseyo said...

Thanks, Wondosama.

Anonymous said...

Most Christian Koreans don't practice Jesa, technically (as ancestor worship is prohibited, although they do hold similar ceremonies to honor their ancestors, without believing the actual souls of their ancestors are eating the souls of the food, etc). You got the entire point of the ceremony, which is to remember departed loved ones who brought you where you are today. Thanks for the touching post.

Juicy said...

Departed ones leave echoes of themselves in their loved ones. That you care and cherish and honor your mother this way is a tribute to your mother and how she raised you.

Eugene said...

Jesa is NOT ancestor worship! Finally someone who agrees with me and doesn't see any conflict between Christianity and performing of Jesa. If anything, going to someone's tombstone to remember them is more close to worshiping an idol than Jesa is.