Autumn Ideals, Seoul-Style
|Cover of an Autumn Ideals magazine, although not the one I remember.|
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 Halloween candy in the aisles of the commissary on the American Army base when I shop there. Other than that, though, - speaking from a purely American point of view - 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 Chusok, 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 Chusok holidays.|
What I'm looking for - and missing terribly - is the way American culture gets ready for Fall. I'm missing pumpkins and gourds in the grocery store; farm stands 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 Halloween cookout, where we all get together and grill hotdogs and hamburgers before the children head out for trick-or-treat and the rest of us socialize in the dark while dispensing candy to princesses, superheroes, pirates, and ballerinas. These things, to me, say, "Fall."
What's even more interesting 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 and which came with us to every country we lived in. For those of you who have never heard of this magazine, it was published a few times a year and was chock-full of sentimental 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.|
Halloween was something you dressed up for at school, but I'd never gone trick-or-treating.
|Halloween costume parade: International School of Bangkok, ca 1970|
Thanksgiving wasn't a family holiday, but a holiday spent with friends, eating at each others' homes or at a big Western hotel. There wasn't much travel involved, since most expats stayed in-country for Thanksgiving. 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 Chusok, 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?