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Rice Cakes For A Traveler MAG
A red X crisscrossed the ninth of March on the 1992 calendar. The antique clockstruck twelve, signalling it was time - time to witness the truth and to pry intothe story behind the Korean custom that had taken place five hours before. It wasthe only way to alleviate my mounting impatience. I tiptoed downstairs to theguest room, shut my eyes and gingerly turned the doorknob.
Now, whatreason would a seven-year-old have for creeping downstairs at midnight? It wasexactly a year since my grandfather had taken his last breath, and every year onthe date a loved one died, it is a Korean tradition that family and friendsprepare a ceremony to show their respect for the deceased. This was the firsttime I had participated in Jae Sah Nahl, the memorial service.
To me itwas more like a feast for the dead, the focal ingredient of the ceremony beingfood. Beginning in the morning, the women did nothing but heat, fry, bake, boil,roast and grill all kinds of Korean food. The ceremony even had rules about theplacement of food on the table.
In the middle of a long table in the guestroom, galbi and bool go gee (Korean meats) and fishes were placed on elegantporcelain. On one side of the table were seaweed, vegetable and bean soups. Bindae deok and jap chae jealously assembled near the foremost Korean foods, therice and the infamous kimchi, noted for its piquancy, in the front. In the back,fresh vegetables and fruits were piled precisely, according to their kind. A pairof chopsticks next to the bowl of rice was the finishing touch.
Everythingwas impeccable. The table was adorned with vibrant colors. The pleasant odor ofthe delectable foods caressed my nose and made my stomach rumble. I was ready todevour everything when I felt a hand rest on my shoulder. It was my grandmother.She took me to the dining room.
"Let me tell you a story," shesaid in Korean. "The spirits of the dead travel the world to visit placesthey never had the chance to when they were alive."
"IsGrandfather a traveler, too?" I inquired.
"Yes. Faraway windscarry his spirit to faraway places. Because his journey takes a long, whole year,he is tired and needs rest and nourishment," my grandmothersmiled.
"Is that why all the food was made? So that Grandfather couldeat?" I asked. My grandmother nodded.
"Yes. Jae Sah Nahl is asignificant custom in Korea. Preparing a glorious feast with Grandfather'sfavorite foods shows him that his family and friends care about him, and wish hima healthy journey."
"So that means Grandfather is going to dinewith us!" I exclaimed.
My grandmother chuckled and patted my head asshe said, "However, you must not eat the deok (rice cakes)." Sheslouched toward me and whispered, "There is an ancient myth that when theclock strikes twelve on the day of Jae Sah Nahl, the spirit of the dead comes inits human form and eats the rice cakes."
When I heard this, Ifrowned. First of all, I never knew that spirits could be so self-centered. Ricecakes were my favorite, and I was irritated that I couldn't have any. Second ofall, if it was only a myth, how come we couldn't eat them? I was baffled. BeforeI could ask my grandmother, my mother told us the ceremony wasstarting.
During the ceremony, I had to wear a han bok, a traditionalKorean dress, which was brightly colored with triangular sleeves and floridimprints. The beauty of the dress, however, did not add to the comfort of wearingit, and I kept squirming. After the picture of our grandfather was hung on awall, my whole family did a motion of juls, a movement of bowing our heads. Thissignified our respect and gratitude to my grandfather and the things he had donefor us while he was living.
Then, we stuffed ourselves with food, leavingour plates spotless. The rice cakes, though, remained untouched.
Andthat's why, when the clock struck twelve, I couldn't stay in bed any longer. Wasthe myth true? Was my grandfather going to eat the rice cakes at midnight? I hadto find out. I was a seven-year-old who believed in the tooth fairy, Santa Clausand the boogie man.
So there I was, standing outside the guest room andslowly turning the doorknob as perspiration trickled down my face. My fingerswere quivering. The door groaned, and just as I was about to peer inside, asudden clatter and a tiny moan came from inside. I was alarmed. This was adistressing moment! I darted up the stairs, not knowing what to think or how tofeel. The mystery was beyond comprehension.
Early the next morning, I wentinto the guest room and discovered that the rice cakes were missing. The ancientmyth was true - Grandfather had been here and eaten the rice cakes! Standing likea statue, I heard footsteps. My younger sibling came in the room with a smirk andsaid, "Boy, those rice cakes were delicious!"
After that, Inever liked rice cakes.
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Thispublication may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system ortransmitted in any form or by any means,
without the writtenpermission of the publisher: The Young Authors Foundation, Inc.