Four weddings and a funeral

Somewhere along the lines of the past year of my life, a new stage was entered. A single day or event can’t be pinpointed, but whereas during my 20s, most of my closest friends were single or dating, now it’s a case more often than not, of them being married or dating seriously.

There was of course my own wedding back in April. And not to play it down – somehow it ended up being a pretty big wedding in an almost-filled very big church – it didn’t really “hit” (if anything “hit”, it was realising I had so many close friends, something not fully appreciated until they were all there together). I was still me, and Lady bingbing was still lady bingbing, just that we got to spend a lot more time together.

Then a good friend of hers was married – two Koreans in a stock-standard wedding hall – with the lingering afterthought that our buffet was better but at least theirs had the free booze (LBB mightn’t be but her extended family is pretty hardcore Christian i.e. no frickin’ booze).

Not long after that, a cousin of LBB was married, and we headed up to Seoul in the blazing summer heat to an impressive Catholic church. This was the second time to see LBB’s vast extended family and as I sat there at the buffet swilling soju, I took delight on retelling Jesus’ first (?) miracle of when He was at a lame wedding party and decided to get things going by turning water into wine (hint hint, and in true style, we had an after party).

Fast forwarding a few months, and another friend – a lapsed Jehovah’s Witness – married his Korean fiancé with a hardcore Buddhist father. Not that I was privy to all that went on, but his parents certainly got thrown in the deep end, that being their first-ever visit to Korea.

I’ve had many a “cultural experience” since I first came to Korea all those years ago, but this year, the truly authentic ones were certainly coming thick and fast.

It’s one thing watching a traditional concert put on for tourists. It’s another spending Korean Thanksgiving with a Korean family – two in fact – in a Korean house. And not just any Korean family, but literally your Korean family… with the added poignancy of watching various phones and tablet PCs come out to record an ailing grandmother’s probable last giving of thanks.

You see, for many years, I (and probably most foreigners) have felt like an outsider in the Hermit Kingdom. For various reasons – and no doubt partly because of my own doing – there is a tendency for Koreans to never really let an outsider “in”.

It’s difficult to put one’s finger on exactly why that is.

There’s the language barrier, and whilst I can get by in a restaurant or taxi, and know when the kids are swearing at me, I’m not about to go and ring up the tax department and inquire about my bill.

I’m white. In an Asian mono-culture, you stand out (but it’s changing).

But there are other factors that are harder to fathom such as, to name a couple of recent examples, not being consulted when a new English text book was chosen or even as recently as last week, unlike everyone else, being told there was the annual teachers’ photograph literally minutes before it was to be taken (so there’s everybody dressed up in suits and formal dresses, and there I am in jeans and a polo shirt).

Who knows? Maybe centuries of Chinese and Japanese oppression, despite the promise of the modern era, don’t just uncoil themselves from the psyche of a people upon a handshake by respective leaders.

Anyway, I never came here for the “cultural experience” in the first place. I cringe when I hear wide-eyed post-grads say they have.

Yet even if I had come for that reason, the last six months have told me it would have all been moot.

This realisation really hit home this past week.

Still catching up on sleep after a four-night, three-day party that is the F1 rolling into town, on Tuesday we learned that LBBs grandmother had passed away after a long battle with cancer.

And whilst the news came as no surprise, that merely took away from the shock. It certainly didn’t take away from the sadness. A matriarch was gone.

They do funerals differently in Korea.

LBB was already there, and on Tuesday afternoon after work, I took the train up to her hometown, was picked up by my mother-in-law (LBB was still working), and via a quick stop at Burger King courtesy of Um-ma, went to the hospital.

But not to the hospital per se.

In Korea, there are special rooms attached to the hospital where the family (or at any given time, parts there of) hangs out and receive guests such as family friends and friends of the deceased who come to pay their final respects and make a cash donation.

There’s food and drink there served round the clock and the atmosphere is actually supposed to be quite cordial, if not even a little jovial.

I had no idea about that last part, until my father-in-law’s best friend started pouring me drinks and was joking with him the whole time.

Just before going back to my “town” late that night, I learned that this was the first day, the first two days in fact, of a three day process.

The next day, Wednesday, I told my school that I would need the following day off to attend the funeral proper.

What struck me first was that unlike their attitude the week before with the school photo, without even asking, they said I could go as soon as my classes had finished.

Coming from the same people who make me sit there during school vacation for eight hours with nothing to do (my vacation is considerably shorter than the kids’ vacation), this – at least at the time – was surprising.

LBB was back home, and after getting suits etc. ready and feeding the cats the good stuff (i.e. not the dry bikkies) until they could feed no more, and then making sure enough food and water were left out and that the place was as “frisky-proof” as we could make it, we headed up to the hospital where what can be perhaps best described as the wake was still going on.

This time, I had to/was offered to don the suit, a white shirt (all my business shirts have some kind of colour) and black tie.

The added cultural touch to this is that sons of the deceased wear a yellow armband with two black stripes and grandsons wear one with one black stripe. Incidentally, some of the female relatives wore black hanboks (why some did and some didn’t, I don’t know UPDATE: it’s a period of cultural transition, no one knows… from what I can gather it’s up to the individual how much tradition they wanna take on).

I asked if the yellow armband was because I was getting some sort of special treatment as a foreigner. Generally, the foreigner is either picked first because they’re a foreigner or thought of last because they’re a foreigner.

That’s when it started to sink in…

I was wearing the armband because I was family, and as a grandson, that’s is what was required.

The “wake” eventually wound down, and LBB and I retired to her parents’ house in preparation for a 6am wake up on my “day off”…

Thank goodness for the Lotte third-of-the-price rip-off of Red Bull.

Despite LBB chewing into me for imbibing too much of the free soju, and her (my other?) Presbyterian family noticing, I was able to be (act) pretty sharp when the extended family met at the hospital at 7am.

Only family this time, and yes, 7-fricken’ AM.

It was starting to twig that I wasn’t there simply out of courtesy.

This became especially evident when it came time for the grandsons to carry the coffin out to the bus, to be taken to Hamoni’s hometown to be buried on a mountainside next to her late husband.

We arrived a little short of two hours later. We waited for the excavators (yeah, it sounds so natural now, right?) to get the grave site ready. Us grandsons, and this time with the help of a few of the sons, hoisted a light coffin with a body inside that felt like it must have been embalmed with lead up a mountain slope that, seriously, wasn’t far off from being a cliff.

A service was held that isn’t too dissimilar to what one might expect back home, we had lunch, and then waited.

In Korea, you can probably find one somewhere, but as a rule, people are either cremated or unlike a cemetery as we know it, are buried in the mountains. There are so many mountains in Korea, and not much flat ground, so it actually makes sense.

They love their mountains and hiking is a huge pastime over here.

The other thing they do is create a burial mound above the grave.

Hope you’re clicking the links, but back to that service.

There’s a definite order to things. And being the son of the fourth son, my turn came to lay dirt on the late matriarch’s coffin. The woman’s own husband’s brother had to wait longer. Her own sister arrived later.

That so-called “definite order” IS gradually being incorporated into the modern world, yet still perhaps all the lesbian feminists out there who make this blog part of their required daily reading won’t take to that last paragraph too kindly.

Ho hum, that’s still to a large extent how it’s still done over here.

A country that is advancing so far technologically, even politically, appears to be paying even extra attention to its cultural heritage, even if said heritage can now sometimes have a Christian or atheist twinge these days.

I don’t mean that some people are riding their bikes on hanboks, but rather when it comes to the important stuff, these kinda Western/Asian looking people are still very much Korean.

But with a modern twist, a Western twist.

And there was no bigger twist than the realisation of being truly welcomed, or perhaps finally realising it, into the family.

It was even scary at one time.

Whilst we were watching the burial mounds be built, LBB’s uncle spoke of plans to build a massive stone… box?… that will hold in separate… containers?… the ashes of 500 family members.

When the time comes…

Heavy stuff.

Speaking of heavy, in front of the two burial mounds was placed a massive polished granite stone commemorating the finally reunited deceased (kinda weird, isn’t it? until death do us part, yet after we’re both dead, the family puts us back together again).

On that stone on the front are the names of the two deceased, on the right side are the sons and daughters, and on the left side are the names of all the grandchildren.

Traditionally and even in modern times, these names are written in Chinese.

I don’t do Chinese, and so, perhaps for the first time ever in Korea, on a gravestone carved from granite, sitting on a mountainside in Korea, are three English words that make up “bingbing’s” full name.

As a “foreigner” who “naturally” has always been relegated to the outside, one suddenly finds himself very much on the inside.

Perhaps it’s a classic human case of not feeling included until one goes through the pain also, not only the celebration, with those closest to him.

To share moments of triumph with others is easy. To be there when the chips are down is something else.

And in their moment of grief, a time when many close in, close up, a foreign family further extended their welcome.

They literally carved it in stone.

What I never had thought comes naturally in Korea, actually does come naturally just as it does in Australia… except that you have to be a little (understated) more committed to your host country here before that red carpet is rolled out.

Asia as a whole has taken many a leaf out of the Western handbook.

Perhaps it time we took a few more leaves out of their handbook.

    • elsie
    • October 21st, 2011

    That was extremely interesting and very very movingly written, bingbing. Thanks for sharing that, and much sympathy to your wife on losing her grandmother

    • Elsie, you remind me of my late nana and Mum herself. You are one of the diamonds that make Australia shine.

        • elsie
        • October 23rd, 2011


    • Sean of Deer Park
    • October 21st, 2011

    Beautifully said, BB. (and yes I was clicking the links)

    My condolences to LBB and your family.

    • I tried to get it right. Reading again, not too bad. I tried to do the old girl some justice. We all did, and I think we did. We did.

      Thanks for seeing that photo for what it was, mate.

        • Sean of Deer Park
        • October 22nd, 2011

        Your post was brilliant, BB, You have done Um-Ma proud.

        You might know this song by MiSex from 1984. “Blue Day”

        For some reason it always inspires me when the chips are down.
        In essence, a sad song with an upbeat feeling; which I think is where you are at right now.

        I think you have done Grandma proud. Her memory will live on not just within the family, but now on the Internet; for future generations to stumble across and reflect on (just like me and others here).

        The equivalent of casting one’s name in stone; in our ‘modern’ world. I would think that in itself is a wonderful tribute on your part. I certainly appreciated this thread because it reminded me of being a Pall-Bearer at my Grandfathers funeral (think major Catholic!) It’s funny (peculiar) how sad moments become milestones in your life, but at the same time, obvious for the rest of the world to see.

        The cycle of life is indeed wonderful. And just you wait until you and Lady Bing have children, a family of your very own. Suddenly, everything falls into perspective.

    • The Wizard of WOZ
    • October 21st, 2011

    Outstanding mate. I rekon thats probably your best and definitely most personal posting on this blog.

    I feel privileged to have read it.

    • Thanks, WOZZA.

      Just started writing, wanted to give an accurate account.

      I dunno… something about bringing nations’ understanding of other nations closer together… some crap like that.

      And just writing about it, getting those thoughts out, not keeping it bottled in.

      Glad you liked it.

  1. Well written and touching story. I’m sorry for your loss but very happy for you feeling the acceptance of your extended family.

    • Thanks, mate. It was supposed to just be why I hadn’t been blogging much lately, and I dunno, a few lines here and there didn’t seem to do the story justice.

  2. Hi,
    My Sympathy to your Wife and Family.
    Very nicely written, and very interesting as well.

    • Thanks, mags. Such is the cycle of life, and as Sean mentioned, sometimes it’s necessary to take a step back and reflect.

      There’s a bit of blogger burnout in there, too, TBH, but let’s see what happens next week, especially with The Australian going behind its paywall on Monday.

    • Merilyn
    • October 22nd, 2011

    Sorry to read about the death of Lady Bingbing’s Grandmother, may she rest in peace.

    Thank you bing for a wonderful and well written article.

    • Thanks, Merilyn. You’re welcome.

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