The twenty-third of January was New Year’s Day in the lunar calendar – known to most people in the West as Chinese New Year. Well: Chinese, Korean – same thing, right? In Korea the holiday is called Seollal and consists of the day itself, the day before and the day after. While Christmas and solar New Year’s (aka Real New Year’s) are also public holidays in Korea, they’re not really special events. Seollal and the late summer harvest festival of Chuseok are the times when Koreans return to their families for food, ancestor worship, games and gifts.
This year’s Seollal fell on a Monday, which resulted in a four-day weekend (no worker-friendly days off in lieu in Korea). The day before – Sunday (in case you don’t know the order of days in a week) Habiba and I met our friend Graeme and his friend Dylan. We went to a tourist information centre near City Hall where we played some of the traditional games that always crop up at the two big holidays.
One of these was yutnori, a game that involves throwing up four stick that are flat on one side and rounded on the other; depending on the number of flat sides up (or down, depending on your point of view) you can move one of two counters around a board a certain number of spaces; if you land on the opposing team’s counter you can send it back to the start. Habiba and Graeme won.
We threw arrow-like sticks into urns and Korean hacksack was also there. Then we dressed up in traditional dress – they just went over our normal clothes. The usual hanbok was available, but we boys all chose royal and noble costumes.
After that we walked past the entrance to the Gyeongbok Palace and walked around Bukchon, an area with lots of coffee shops and shops selling crafts, nicknacks and jewellery, as well as old-fashioned, single-storey Korean houses (hanok). We had coffee and played cards.
While walking around this area, we saw a cat lying on its side on someone’s doorstep. We realised that the cat was sick. It was breathing with difficulty, foaming at the mouth a bit and it periodically spasmed. It wasn’t blinking at all and obviously had no strength to get up. A couple of young Korean guys had also stopped and they got on the phone and got in touch with some sort of animal centre. One of them found a bit of newspaper and plastic sacking to cover the cat with to try to keep it warm. We waited there for maybe forty-five minutes in total.
We didn’t know what had happened to it. We speculated that maybe it had eaten some poison or that it had been hit by a car and was suffering from shock or even that it had rabies. Habiba was quite emotional and my voice caught when I talked about some of my family’s cats that had been affected by poison. The van that took the cat away belonged to an organisation called Karma.
After that, we headed to Insadong, where the street of souvenir and craft shops is. It also has lots of restaurants and we met another couple of people, Jacky and Chris, for dinner. We shared two big pots of soup – heated at the table on portable burners – one of dalkdoritang or spicy chicken soup, another of beef, mushroom and Korean dumplings. And we got drunk on lots of bottles of makkeolli.
It wasn’t a late night, though, and we took the bus home. Habiba cried a bit again and wondered out loud why the innocent should suffer. I didn’t really say anything, as the honest answer to that is, basically, that shit happens. Nature is full of danger and disease and death, but we humans tend to forget this because of the comfortable world we’ve built for ourselves. I had appendicitis last year, a condition that, if I’d lived in an early time, probably would have killed me and that would have been perfectly in keeping with the natural order. In simple biological terms, humans become fertile in their early teens, so a lifespan of thirty-odd years gives people enough time to raise a couple of children (the lucky ones that survive) to maturity before dying – their evolutionary purpose fulfilled.
Still, it’s not pleasant to see a fellow mammal suffering (yes, mammal – remember that just a couple of weeks ago we were happy to hook fish out of a river and let them suffocate in the air). One of the things that distinguishes humans from other animals is not our empathy or compassion – it doesn’t seem too unreasonable to say that other animals possess these things – but the breadth of our empathy and compassion. Animals (cute, furry ones, at any rate) seem to occupy a place in our minds that is evolutionarily reserved for children.
But enough of such pretentious and, indeed, portentous rambling. Overall, this Lunar New Year’s Eve was pleasant – and if not pleasant, then at least it stimulated the emotions and the mind.