Don’t do this with chopsticks! Chopsticks in Korea.

One of the first things you may learn when travelling to Korea, Japan or China is that it’s inappropriate and offensive to stick chopsticks into your rice like that. Although it varies from country to country, it is always something symbolic in regards to rituals for the dead.

In Korea you see it in the Jesa ceremonies. There are different types of Jesa ceremonies for deceased family members and they can vary from region to region. The only time I’ve ever seen someone do this gesture respectfully is for Jesa ceremonies at Hugh’s parents’ house when his father leads a ceremony.

An action you will probably only ever see at a jesa sees the leader insert of a pair of chopsticks into the center of a bowl of rice. It is considered taboo to stick one’s chopsticks vertically into food in Korea unless at a jesa, as this gesture is reserved for food offered to the spirits of the dead.

From: Life after death – The beguiling world of the Korean jesa ceremony.

Unfortunately Hugh is sometimes not the most respectful person! He doesn’t do it on purpose but has the bad habit of being lazy with utensils (I’ve seen him eat meat with just tongs before!) and sometimes he just doesn’t think about it. Sometimes the person who is newer to a culture and has more recently learned these manners is the one paying more attention.

I’ve realised when editing videos later he has done it on camera as well much to the horror of some. Telling him that is grandfather is upset and watching him made he laugh but also to think about why there are traditions in Korea.

One a side note:

When Catholic missionaries first came to Korea they realised the importance of these ceremonies and didn’t make converts change which is why Catholicism grew more rapidly in Korea at first. Catholicism has many ceremonies and rituals and Korean culture was able to merge with these new beliefs. Unfortunately Protestants came in with cultural insensitivity and forced many to give up these important traditions. These days some Christians have adapted traditional ceremonies to meet half way between protestant beliefs and traditions but many still shun the days when these ceremonies are done, often leaving the country altogether.  Catholicism in Korea is known to be more accepting of different faiths and work with other religions and religious leaders, while Korean protestants are some of the most aggressive Christians in the world and have been known to even vandalise Buddhist temples. Even the recent holiday of Buddha’s birthday there were protestant Christians picketing temples. It’s sad the damage that western beliefs can do.

Coming from a country that doesn’t have many traditions or ceremonies I appreciate seeing the traditions in Korea and being part of them. I hope the younger generation can realise the important and continue them on. Hugh will have to take over the Jesa ceremonies from his father eventually and will need to learn how to do them.

Then he will be allowed to stick the chopsticks in the rice!

More on how to hold a Jesa ceremony here.

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