What does it mean to be Korean-American? According to the U.S. Census, we number 1.7 million strong, making us the 5th largest Asian-American group. However, growing up in America oftentimes means that we have to pick and choose our degree of assimilation. But why should we choose only one? This weekend, I attended a fusion birthday party that epitomizes how we can combine cultures rather than restrict ourselves to only one.
I grew up with a mostly Western upbringing, even though I embraced Korean culture as well. My way of thinking is distinctly American, and I handle most holidays accordingly. Christmas means a honey-smoked ham and presents under the tree; birthdays mean a piñata and singing around the birthday cake. Even though I had heard about traditional Korean celebrations, I didn’t participate in them as a child, so it was a wonderful experience to share this festivity rather than read about it in a Wikipedia article.
“Chut dol” is called the baby’s first birthday, and represents a momentous occasion. The star of the show was dressed spiffily at first in a white checked shirt and dark gray vest. The entire celebration opened with taking bets on the choosing ceremony. In Korean culture, the choosing ceremony entails the baby choosing between a wide variety of objects, all which signify what the baby’s life will lead to. We all voted on which object we thought he would choose. For example, there was a pile of string for long life, a pencil for scholarly desires, a one hundred-dollar bill for wealth, a bow and arrow for courage, and a goniometer to symbolize his mother’s profession as a physical therapist. Afterwards, he was changed into traditional Korean attire with a beautiful periwinkle magoja, or jacket, with striped sleeves and matching blue paji, or pants.
During the choosing ceremony, everyone surrounded him, eagerly recording this precious moment in his life. He at first crawled to the goniometer, touched it gently, and then hurriedly returned to his mother’s arms. He returned to the array of options, softly stroked the hundred-dollar bill, and rushed back to his mother for consolation, leading to an eruption of good-natured laughter. Finally, he returned and picked up the goniometer with both hands. Afterwards, the family distributed three-layer cake and flavorful ddeok, or rice cakes, to celebrate.
The goal of Chut dol is to celebrate the survival of a young infant and to look forward to his or her future happily. However, I also found myself looking back to my own past. As a half-Caucasian, half-Asian child, I used to feel forced to identify as Asian since I have more Asian than Caucasian features, even though I identified more with my more Western upbringing. Consequently, I resented the fact I didn’t fit neatly into one square box. Watching the celebration of Korea’s rich culture helped bring me back to appreciate my own roots. I laughingly discussed with a friend which object I might have picked as a baby if I had a choosing ceremony, while she informed me which object she had picked (she grabbed all possible options). It was beautiful to feel the closeness and family of the entire celebration and to also see the heritage I come from. I thank the family for inviting me, not just for the celebration of the cutest baby in the world, but also for letting me be a part of such a culturally significant moment I would not have experienced any other way.