In Korean culture, the word “hometown” means more than just the place you grew up. It’s a word infused with sentimentality, longing, love and connection. And it’s something I think many Americans like me – transient as we are – probably don’t feel in the same way that Koreans do.
An example: During major holidays in South Korea, EVERYONE beelines for their hometown, resulting in traffic jams of eight hours and more out of Seoul (where 20% of the population lives) to the rest of the country. In normal traffic, the longest it takes to drive from one end of South Korea to the other is about five hours. To not be able to visit your hometown is one of the saddest situations for a Korean; one well-known Korean song begins, “I miss my hometown and I can’t even go.”
And so it was that I spent the recent Chuseok (Thanksgiving) holiday with hundreds of Koreans who can’t visit their hometowns because those places are in North Korea. Instead, all these people gathered at Imjingak, a park on the border with North Korea. This is as close as they’ll ever get to their hometowns. Here, on an outdoor stage-like area under a blazing sun, these yisan-kajok (separated families) performed all the Chuseok ancestral rituals – such as food and drink offerings and bowing to honor your deceased relatives – that you would normally carry out in your hometown. The South Korean government has organized this Chuseok gathering for the last 46 years.
Most yisan-kajok came south before and during the Korean War and ended up permanently separated from their families. More than 80% of them are 70 and older, according to the South Korean Red Cross. “I just want to see my hometown one more time before I die,” was something I heard over and over at Imjingak.
Looking at North Korea. Thousands of South Koreans have been separated from their hometowns and families in the north since the Korean War ended in 1953. They’ll likely never see either before they die.
Lining up to perform ancestral rituals for Chuseok at Imjingak. Directly behind the offering area is the wooden Bridge of Freedom, built specifically to exchange Korean War POWs; a functioning railroad bridge (back left) that takes tourist from Imjingak and points south to the last stop in South Korea, Dorasan; and the old railroad bridge (back right).
Speeches, speeches, speeches under the noon-day sun. I thought the event organizers could have thrown up some tents for all these mostly elderly people to sit under. At least the organizers provided these humongous blue-and-white striped paper hats.