by RANDALL PARK
When I was growing up, every New Year’s Day, my entire family would gather to perform the yearly ritual of saebae. It’s basically a way to honor ancestors and the older generations with a deep bow to the floor and the wish for many blessings in the coming year. We children would approach each elder, proclaim “Saehae bok mani badeuseyo!,” bow to the floor, and then, for some reason, they would hand us cash. As a kid, I didn’t understand the meaning of it all. I just knew that at the start of every New Year, I’d have a buttload of money to spend on comic books and candy. It was awesome.
There’s nothing cuter than seeing a little Korean toddler perform a sacred ritual. I distinctly remember when my awkward bows would elicit an “awww” from the room full of delighted adults. I was frickin’ adorable.
But then one day, something happened. I got old. I was in my mid-20s, no longer cute, and I was broke. Credit card companies were on my ass. I was living at home with my parents. I needed money, and I saw New Year’s was my way to get it. All of a sudden, I was the only “child” at saebae who smelled like weed and Jack Daniels. Downing bowl after bowl of tteokguk, trying to get rid of my hangover, I felt like a complete failure. And I was. I’d look over at my cousins who used to be the ones bowing besides me. Some of them were now doctors and lawyers, and they were handing out cash instead of receiving it. Then, like a desperate stripper, I would take to the floor. “Saehae bok mani badeuseyo!” And I would put out my well-aged hands like a trembling peasant, and they would hand me my loot.
By the time I reached 30, I stopped going completely. I guess I had developed a sense of what we adults call “shame.” Sure, by then I had moved into a little apartment, I was slowly paying off my debts, and I was pursuing my career in acting, but I was still broke. But I just wasn’t going to get my money by sullying a time-honored family tradition. I made a vow to never come back until I was able to give, not take. Then, miraculously, in the years to follow, I would finally start doing better for myself. I became more focused, more responsible. I’d slowly dig myself out of debt, I’d get married, buy a house, and one day, I would become a father.
Today, I am doing well enough to be able to show my face on New Year’s Day. I don’t know how it all happened, but it was definitely in part due to the help of my family. My elders were there for me during my tough times, and for this, I am eternally grateful. I bought groceries with that saebae money. I paid off bills. Sure, I may have used it to buy liquor on occasion, but life is tough when you’re completely lost. It helped me get by. And all in all, I’ve turned out OK. So this New Year’s Day and, in the ones to follow, if one of those “kids” bowing before me happens to be a bit older, maybe sluttier, maybe reeking of drugs and liquor, I won’t judge. I’ll just smile, hand them some cash, and maybe one day, they’ll thank me for it.
To enjoy more of Randall’s work, visit www.randallparkplace.com.
This article was published in the December 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the December issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only.)