Saturday, September 24, 2011

Autumn Ideals, Seoul-Style

Cover of an Autumn Ideals magazine, although not the one I remember.
(MsCaroline has been feeling sentimental lately and is waxing nostalgic.  You have been warned.)


Fall is definitely in the air here in Seoul.  The daytime temperatures are no longer in the 90s (32C and up), the humidity has been reduced to manageable levels, and the prospect of spending more than 15 minutes out of doors no longer fills me with despair.  There is a nip in the air in the mornings, which means that Son #2 wears a hoodie (hooded sweatshirt) to the bus stop, and MrLogical does not curse about having to wear a coat and tie to work.  Other than that, though, there really aren't any other visible signs - at least to my eyes - that Fall is on the way.  The lone indicator I have seen is a section of Hallowe'en candy in the aisles of the commissary on the American Army base when I shop there.  Other than that, though, - speaking as an American - you really wouldn't know that it was almost October.

As the temperatures have cooled in the past few weeks, I've done a lot of thinking about what it means to be part of a culture.  Part of it is, of course, feeling like you belong:  understanding the language, the customs, and all the little subtleties that make navigating through a country either a non-event or (for me at the moment) a daily adventure, fraught with potential pitfalls and misunderstandings.  But not just that:  I've been realizing that one of these subtleties has to do with the way the culture - as a group - greets the changing seasons.  For example, the explosion of hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) and gift sets in all the store windows at the beginning of September as everyone in Korea got ready for Chu-sok, the Korean Thanksgiving holiday.  I imagine that, after a few years in Seoul, I will see the hanbok in the store windows and get a slightly nostalgic 'it's almost Fall' feeling because I'll connect the two.  But this first year, I don't have any cultural connections, so I don't have any sense of being part of the culture or the sense of anticipation.  And that, of course, is the heart of the matter and part of belonging in a culture:  knowing what is coming and being able to anticipate it because you've seen it before and done it before.  Remembering, along with everyone else, the joys of the season, and looking forward to all it holds.

Hanbok on sale before Chu-sok holidays.

What I'm looking for - and missing terribly - is the way my culture gets ready for Fall.  I'm missing pumpkins and gourds in the grocery store;  farmstands on the side of the road with hand-lettered signs selling pumpkins and cornstalks and huge, pillowy chrysanthemums in glowing colors.  I'm missing scarecrows and 'pick your own' pumpkin patches, bonfires, tailgating before football games, raking leaves, and autumn wreaths on everyone's front doors.  I'm missing Halloween costumes taking up 3 aisles in Target and Wal-Mart, advertisements for Haunted Houses, and plans with my neighbors for the annual Hallowe'en cookout, where we all get together and grill hotdogs and hamburgers before the kids head out for trick-or-treat and the rest of us socialize in the dark while dispensing candy to princesses, bums, pirates, and ballerinas.  These things, to me, say, "Fall."


What's even more interesting to me is the fact that, as a third culture kid, this sort of thing really doesn't have much to do with remembering nostalgic autumns of my childhood.  In fact, until I was 10 and we moved back to the US, I'd never really experienced an American Fall, and since we only lived in the States for a few years before moving to Germany, it wasn't much time to absorb an entire cultural construct.  No, most of my concept of Autumn was based on reading books, talking to my parents, and leafing through a very tattered old copy of a now-defunct magazine called, Ideals, which my mother had either brought with her or had sent from home.  For those of you who have never heard of this magazine, it was published a few times a year and was chock-full of photographs, paintings, poetry, and prose related to the general season.


 The only one I ever remember seeing was a single Autumn edition, probably from the late 60s (my mother may still have it yet.)  On its cover, was a bounteous display of pumpkins, gourds, cornstalks, and other harvesty-looking produce, shot in the most complimentary soft lighting, and displayed on a rustic wooden table.  The contents were equally idyllic and romantic (what do you expect from a magazine called Ideals?):  a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving on this page:  a photograph of a covered bridge on the next; a printed version of the song, "Over The River and Through The Woods;"  toddlers playing in a pumpkin patch;  a horse and carriage trotting down a tree-lined country road blazing with Autumn color;  a cozy-looking grandmother knitting by a cast-iron stove and looking out the window as her family arrives for Thanksgiving.  In my mind, this was what Autumn in the US looked like, and it had no connection to my reality, which was open-air markets, Buddhist temples, and rice paddies (we lived next to one in Taiwan.)
View of the rice paddy over the garden wall in Taipei.

MsCaroline, in sarong, Bangkok, ca. 1969.  It might have been Fall.

  Hallowe'en was something you dressed up for at school, but I'd never gone trick-or-treating like most American kids.


Hallowe'en costume parade:  International School of Bangkok, ca 1970

 Thanksgiving was a holiday spent with friends- often eating a meal at a big Western hotel - since most expats stayed in-country for Thanksgiving.  Oh, my mother decorated a bit for each season and holiday, but that was just in our house.  The rest of the world didn't really participate.

I think it may be for those reasons that, when I finally had a home of my own, I wholeheartedly embraced each season as it came.  From hay bales and chrysanthemums on my front porch in Kentucky to the annual carving of the pumpkins in Arizona (one for each member of the family in an appropriate size, lit with a candle and glowing in the window), to the making of my own cranberry chutney at Thanksgiving in Texas, I reveled in being part of the whole, and in belonging to the culture in which I was living.  Fireworks on New Year's, daffodils for Spring, mint juleps for Derby Day.  I was part of it.  I belonged.

And now, here I am in Seoul, where the signs of Fall are - to my Western eyes - few and far between.  For me, this year, Fall has meant an end to the brutal heat, breathless hikes to the tops of mountains lined with the ruins of ancient city walls, seeing small children in hanbok during Chu-sok, and watching the changing of the guard at Deoksugung palace. Next year at this time, I will have put tiny roots down, and these things will have begun to mark the season for me.  I will see the hanbok, feel the nip in the air, puff my way to the top of Namsan, and, for me, that will mean, 'Fall.'  I love being here and seeing all of this, and I am deeply grateful to be sharing these experiences with my children.  But yet - a part of me yearns for a few pumpkins and - just maybe - the sight of an autumn wreath on someone's front door.




What says, "Fall" to you? Is it a sight? A sound? A smell? A food? If you're away from home, has it changed based on where you've lived? 

12 comments:

Wilma said...

When I was a kid growing up in Willcox I knew it was fall when it was getting close to Rex Allen Days weekend. That is the first weekend in October and it coincides with football homecoming. Without fail at halftime during the homecoming game a cool breeze would come across the valley and from then on there were no more hot days.

Here in Tucson I don't really have anything like that. Usually by mid-October it has cooled down to where it is only in the 80s or so during the day and I might grab my sweater when I take Sean to school in the morning. You lived in AZ long enough to know that we don't really have four seasons in the traditional sense. We just have "The Hot" and "The Cooler" which lasts just long enough to lull us into forgetting just how horribly hot it gets during "The Hot." LOL

Loved the childhood pics, BTW.

Flora Fauna Dinner said...

Funnily enough, exposure to American culture through media meant that like a lot of British kids, I grew up feeling that I had somehow been cheated of Halloween. We are told that it's this great big deal for kids and all this cool stuff is going to happen but in Britain, it really doesn't. You might get to go trick or treating but most people won't open their doors! We always had a little party for Halloween anyway because it's my mum's birthday, but most families didn't do anything at all.

But we do have Guy Fawkes' Night just a few days later which was always celebrated with a huge bonfire and fireworks and kids coming round collecting 'a penny for the Guy' they had made.

Now I am in Scotland, autumn starts in August and late October is winter. It means more soups and stews, bringing the chickens and guinea pigs in and having to start visiting indoor attractions rather than the beach. Autumn is also my favourite season - I love the damp decaying woods, the fungi and the darker evenings.

MsCaroline said...

Wilma, you're right, there were only 2 seasons in AZ, but even there they did their best to contrive some sort of Fallish feeling, with pumpkin patches (horribly hot)and scarecrows and things. In Tempe, it did cool down some in October, but it never got really comfortable until right around Halloween. When I first moved there and asked people when it would cool down, they said, "Halloween' and I thought they were kidding...live and learn. What you mention about the cool breeze coming in during homecoming - I swear that happened in Tempe on Halloween, like clockwork every year we were there. It really was a sudden change, just like you say.
Glad you like the pics - I shocked MrL when I mentioned I'd posted a topless one....; )

Wilma said...

*WARNING: Native Arizonan on a rampage* AZ wasn't like that when I was a kid. We don't have true fall and we didn't pretend to. I grew up before they whored the place out to the outsiders and the tourists. To be blunt, when I was a kid our response was, "You don't like how things are here, leave." *rampage ended*

As far as autumn wreaths or whatever those things are, I never heard of that until the '90s when Michael's started taking over the world. I don't think I've ever actually seen one. My parents were from the land of four seasons and I've been there for Thanksgiving a couple of times and I can honestly tell you that NOBODY decorated for fall. Maybe some particularly pretty colored leaves from the yard arranged in a glass on the table but nothing more than that. I hold Michael's and the other crafty-crap places responsible for all the overboard decorating we see nowadays. They've managed somehow to convince people that this is a tradition. I think also that since many people no longer decorate for Halloween they've changed to do that instead since they have some need to decorate.

Reading back over this, it would seem that I'm in a foul mood. Not really, just blunt--and maybe cantankerous. I understand if you choose not to approve this one. I'll send it though since I've taken the time to write it. LOL

nappy valley girl said...

Fall is my absolute favourite season in America. I love the whole pumpkins, apples, hayrides and the rest of it culture, even if I have found the whole cult of Halloween completely over the top both years I've lived here. Autumn in England just isn't the same; yes, we have apples and bonfires (I do miss Guy Fawkes; nothing like that here) but we don't make such a huge song and dance about it, and Halloween just isn't that big a deal. Growing up in Hong Kong, there was a little more American influence, so we did go trick or treating. But here it is huge; almost bigger than Christmas, I would say.

MsCaroline said...

@Wilma: yes, things certainly are over the top at Michael's. I don't remember anyone ever complaining about the lack of an East-Coast type Fall in Tempe; we were all very happy to be living there without expecting harvest wreaths or whatever. We did carve pumpkins, but we never put them out until Halloween - otherwise they rotted too fast in the heat (and besides, they attracted javalinas.) However, what I miss here in Korea was the sense of all of us, as a culture, marking the transition between seasons in a predictable, familiar way. That's what I was trying to convey in my post, the fact that being in a foreign country means you're missing those things, that -for you- mark a certain time of year, like listening to the Corona del Sol marching band practice before school, or kids bringing home those turkeys they make out of their handprints, or even the ridiculous amount of Halloween costumes littering the aisles.

MsCaroline said...

@Flora: I had no idea we'd corrupted British culture so much - apologies! It does seem kind of strange to hype the idea of trick-or-treating when there's no where to actually do it. I love the idea of a bonfire for Guy Fawkes - I've only read about it - and a bonfire seems completely appropriate for that time of year, as does crunching through an autumnal wood and cooking warm, comforting things instead of grilling out and making salads.

MsCaroline said...

@NVG: I bet they do Autumn beautifully on Long Island; my parents are both from the Northeast (Boston and Canadian Maritimes)so I heard a lot growing up about the wonders of Autumn in New England, and did experience it during visits when we were living in the US. We never trick-or-treated in Bangkok or Taipei that I can remember, unless we did something through the school; we usually had a Halloween party at school, but that was it, not a big deal at all. Seems like it's gotten much more commercial in the last few years.

Wilma said...

I hear you, Carolyne. You did convey that. I went off on a tangent--I'm bad that way. Sorry. :( I never really thought too much about fall, probably because we didn't have it. I was more concerned about Rex Allen Days and would I be able to find a tortoise for the derby. I went trick-or-treating a few times and there was a carnival in the community center and I won a teddy bear in the costume contest when I was four. Fourth grade was the last time I dressed up and third grade was the last time I went trick-or-treating. We didn't decorate at my house other than to make a jack-o-lantern and set it outside. That was it. My mother dressed as a witch for school though. She also read Old Black Witch to each class every year and then while they were doing their work she played that album Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House. LOL

MsCaroline said...

No problem, Wilma: the 'Michael's Syndrome' is one that gets to all of us. As far as people coming to AZ and being unhappy that it's not Back East (that's how everyone referred to it), I didn't run across many of them, but when I did, I thought the same thing you did: time to head home. We loved AZ wholeheartedly and hope to retire there someday. My mom didn't decorate for Halloween except for pumpkins, either, but she had some nice harvesty decorations she took out in November; she was an elementary school teacher, so she did have a little stock of Halloween activities she did with the kids. I did the same for my German students: nothing actually 'Halloweeny', but every year they would have an All Saints'Day assignment where they did a brief research project on a famous German speaker and had to create a tombstone for him/her. Culminating activity was on the school day closest to Halloween; I turned off the lights, played scary Bach fugues, and the students had to 'wander in the graveyard,' reading tombstones and gathering facts about the famous people.

Wilma said...

I'm glad you liked AZ. I think it's the most beautiful place on the face of the earth but I'm just a little biased since I'm born here. LOL My father called PA "Back East" but my mother called it "Back Home." I never heard my father refer to PA as home until 2000. As far as scary Bach fugues, did the man write anything that WASN'T scary? I'm not a big fan other than perhaps the Brandenburg Concertos. LOL

Karen said...

Too late to be long and insightful again like my lost post. Will try during the week to repost! Think it will work this time...the name/URL option that I use looks different.