What does a public kimchi-making event sponsored by Seoul City Hall have in common with Korean fiction? History, tradition, and literature.
Reading modern Korean literature, as industrial and post-industrial as it is, one can quite quickly forget that this is a relatively recent development, and that for hundreds of years Korea was a slower, poorer, and often underfed country that often suffered hunger and starvation. During winter, there simply were no crops.
Stories like Kim Won-Il’s House With a Sunken Courtyard, Soul of Darkness (Also by Kim Won-il, which suggests when he grew up there weren’t many McDonald’s in the area), and Lee Dong-ha’s Toy City (to name just a few) all deal with the horror of hunger, particularly in winter, waiting for spring to come. Korea, with few resources, developed Kimchi, a naturally fermented cabbage dish, and Kimchi production resulted in the the Kimchijang, that is the near-festival that each village would have annually to create Kimchi for the winter. Kimchijang, one might say, is product of and creator of important Korean ideas like Han, Kibun, and Jeong, as it was premised in hunger, and answered in community.
Which is a long way to get around to what I did last weekend, which was to go and see an actual Kimchijang in downtown Seoul, now turned from a universal necessity into a charity event intended to create food for the poor, and help them survive the cold Korean winters. In essence, and old Korean tradition underpinned by old Korean philosophies, updated to serve modern society.
What was it? Probably 1,000 women in the park in front of City Hall, making some 255 TONS of Kimchi (the number is not random, 250,000 tons were made last year and, well, record are made to be broken and this year they plan to do that). How do you even think about that much kimchi? Well, that’s 510,000 pounds of kimchi delivered in 9 inch tall containers a foot long on each side. So, if you laid it out in a square it would be larger than the base of the Khufu pyramid in Egypt. That’s a lot of Kimchi!
Even better, all the ingredients of the Kimchi were donated and all the kimchi created was being given to 22,000 underprivileged families to help get them through the winter ahead.
The site was awesome, and as the ajumma and halmoni worked relentlessly on making the kimchi, it was packed into trucks an taken away for delivery as a variety of entertainment took place onstage, and in a display of intercity amity, the mayor of Kwangju (Read There a Petal Silently Falls by Ch’oe Yun” if you want to understand the unity of this gesture), among many other notables, came up and gave a speech in support.
The Kimjang happens about this time each year, and if you’re going to be visiting Korea, be sure to see if you can find an Kimjang in the area you’re in. You’ll get a kind of snapshot of a time partly gone by and the enjoyments of watching a centuries old Korean tradition (Note photo of Ajjumah making sure I tried some)!