35, born 1967, born in Korea, immigrated to the U.S. at nine years of age.
Chaesa experience, occurred before the age of nine.
I come from a traditional neo Confucian family, on my father's side. On my mom's side, they converted to
Christianity. I'm the fifth generation. So that means my grandmother, in the late 19th century when the first
North American missionaries came to Korea, that is a time my grandmother came to accept Christianity as a
religion. Therefore on my mom's side, they did not perform any Chaesa. They instead had their own ritual
that replaced chaesa. Replaced by Choong Mo Sik. This is like Chaesa but in a form of Christianity that
includes prayer, reading the Bible, sermons. There is no sacrificial food, only a picture, also there is no
bowing. Food is served afterwards.
What exactly did you celebrate in Korea before the age of nine ?
My dad is from a traditional neo Confucian family. I am of Nara Cho, and Paek Chan Pa descent. This is
our genealogy. Our genealogy goes back a couple thousand years. And the book that contains our
genealogy is as thick as a yellow pages. Actually it's about 10 to 20 of those. So to them, on my father's
side, Chaesa is important. Chaesa is one of the most valued things in Confucian society, ancestor worship.
On top of that, my grandfather is the oldest of his family. This is called Chong Ga Sik. Therefore, he has
the responsibility to do the ancestor worship. This has been passed down to my father's older brother. My
father has one older brother and one older sister. My father's family would go to my grandfather's house to
celebrate the Chaesa.
What happened was my dad met my mom. They were both school teachers when they began
dating each other. On my mother's side, in order for them to OK the marriage, he had to convert. My dad
had already been attending church. So when they got married, my dad became a born-again Christian. So
he had a firm conviction at that time. She had stopped celebrating the Chaesas. We would still attend
Chaasas, but we would stay out in the courtyard. My sister would attend the Chaesas, but she would not
care or take part.
the families would argue a little. They would mock us as Christians, accusing us of not having
filial piety for our ancestors, saying that there is no morals or ethics involved with that.
my mom is wise. She will not bow and she will not participate in the ancestral worship. Other
than that, she will help with the actual event, preparing food, arriving early, being the last ones to help clean
up, basically everything. So that my grandfather doesn't look scornfully at my mom. This is the only
conflict between my grandfather and my mother's family.
Can you talk about the Chaesa event event? The types of food, etc.
There was all sorts of food. There was rice cakes (duk), fried Jun, fish covered with flowers, fruits, lots of
fruits such as pears, chestnuts, ju ju bees, apples, but no oranges. There was also insence.
What time were the Chaesas? What time of the year was it?
I don't recollect. It was the day that the ancestor passed away. This I think is called Gi Il. what I can
remember is they put on very traditional clothes, hanboks and they bowed, but my family never participated
in the bowing. And then we emigrated to the U.S.. We no longer had Chaesa celebrations, but my father
continued with the Choong Mo Sik. Using this ritual as a replacement for Chaesa. My cousins and their
families were here in the United States celebrating the Choong Mo Siks with us. These were large
celebrations. But it's not really a celebration, it's more of a memorial service. It was a Christian ceremony,
that included prayers, singing, a benediction a 15 to 20 minute sermon that was given by a pastor. My dad
would even talk a little bit about my great-grandfather and grandfather, what they did, the fact that they
were independence fighters, nationalists, educators, talking about those aspects of their lives a little bit.
We would only celebrate the Choong Mo Siks for my father's ancestors, never my mother's which
is how it usually works. When one marries, the husband's side usually is responsible for carrying on this
What is the most memorable thing about either the Chaesa or Choong Mo Shik that stands out to you?
As a little boy, up until my teenage years I was a bit confused about this event. The reason was I was not
sure of which way was right. Truthfully although, when I was a little boy, I was more influenced by my
mother's side. But as I became older I realized that Chaesa's were not that bad. I knew that they were not
bad people who were celebrating the Chaesa, both my uncle and my grandfather. My uncle who is an
English professor is not a criminal. So for me, I was unsure what was really going on here. That's the time
when I started doubting myself, and searching for meaning. So I had a long talk with my grandfather about
Every year I go to Korea. Sometimes when I go to Korea, my visit would overlap with Chaesa.
My grandfather would show me my name in the genealogy book and he wanted to make sure that I
remember my Korean heritage, even though I live in America. He never wanted me to forget my Korean
identity. I was 19 when my grandfather had this talk with me.
So when I went to Korea and celebrated the Chaesas I would never bow because I thought that it
was idolatry. And I would never compromise my conviction and faith as a Christian, but my grandfather
did not want me to forget the five basic principles of Confucianism.
So with these things that your grandfather taught you, what will you be more apt to perform for your
ancestors, the Chaesa or Choong Mo Shik?
It is not that the ritual is important to me, is the actual meaning behind the ritual that is important. If I am
bowing due to filial piety I consider that idolatry. But this attitude all changed when my grandfather passed
away. When my grandfather passed away, I at the time was in Korea, and the family was celebrating the
Chaesa. When my grandfather was alive I would go to this house and bow to him. So when he passed
away, this is when it hit me. " if I'm bowing to my grandfather out of respect what he's alive, not as a
representation of ancestral worship, then there'll be nothing wrong with bowing to him after he is dead. And
so I did participate in the Chaesa and bow once. but my older cousins would tell me "Andy, you don't just
bow once." I would defend myself by telling them that I am not participating in any kind of ancestral
worship. This is just out of respect for my grandfather. They were upset that I was not following the ritual
and actually being a bul sang nom- they were degrading me. But I did not care. If I could bow once, out of
a show of respect, I'm sure my God would understand. but my mother and my grandmother did not want me
to do this. They said that I could attend the ceremonies, but not to participate in the bowing. This is a
conflict that I find myself in. I'm sandwiched between my mother's side who are educated theologians and
my father's side who are devout, practicing neo-Confucianist.
So how do you feel about it now? Which way do you think you will follow?
I'm not sure, but I think what I'll do is take the Chaesa and the Choong Mo Shik rituals, and make my own.
I will wear a Hanbok, on Sul Nal, and Chaesa, I will do everything that is culturally traditional, because
customs are very important too. but I will definitely not follow the etiquette for bowing, bowing two and a
half times, nor would I use insence. You know, those things that are too ritualistic. My point is as long as
it's out of respect and not ancestral worship, these things are OK. This I think is what God would approve.
To believe that not properly following the rituals of Chaesa is harmful to one's life and will bring bad luck is
what is to be avoided as Christians who abhor idolatry.
A miracle occurred the last Chaesa. My uncle, my big Aunt, and two older cousins came from
Korea during Chusok. They came to celebrate Chusok, but what was so remarkable was my uncle, my
father's older brother, told my dad that he is willing to participate in the Christian ways. That really
shocked our family. This compromising between the two families and their heavy biases towards tradition
was unexpected and what we considered a miracle. I told my uncle I was happy and cannot believe he
wanted to participate in the Christian ways. My uncle told me that before grandfather died he wrote in his
will that everytime there is a celebration, perform it the way Christians would. The reason grandfather said
this was because he did not want his future generations to fall apart from each other. Rather he wanted
them to always stay close and have firm and lasting ties between the families. That was his will. Basically
the neo-Confucianist way does not outweigh the love for one's family. This is what my grandfather wanted
for us to remember.