By Melanie Meyer
The first time I heard of Chuseok was during my research about Korea before opening Tiny Chef. All I knew was it was similar to America’s Thanksgiving and that it was one of the two major holidays in Korea, the other being the Korean Lunar New Year. What was prominent in my learning of Chuseok was the role of the family in the holiday. Chuseok is one of the few times during the entire year that the family will get together. Korea is an extremely busy and fast-paced culture and typically, once grown children leave home to begin their own lives it’s quite common for family members to go months, if not years without seeing one another. That is why both Chuseok and the Lunar New Year are so important. They are national holidays where everyone gets about 5 days off work to be with their families to eat, play games and give respect to their ancestors.
As I learned more about this holiday, it felt more and more foreign to me both literally and figuratively. Because I am no longer in contact with my adoptive family, I spend major American holidays working. When I read how family-oriented Chuseok was, I couldn’t relate. After opening my restaurant, Tiny Chef, people would wish me a Happy Chuseok. I would say thank you, as I was very grateful for the kindness in recognition, but the words still felt foreign to me; even as I heard myself saying “Happy Chuseok” back. It honestly made me feel empty and like I was an imposter with no family to fill that hollow void. I had no one to celebrate with and I also didn’t even know how to. I know that it was compared to Thanksgiving, but I doubted roast turkey and green bean casserole were on any of their family dinner tables and there was also no underlining genocide and colonization within its history.
And then I found my family.
It was last year in July of 2021 that I found my Omma and in August of the same year when I made direct contact with her. I discovered I had two younger brothers, a sister-in-law, and a nephew. During Chuseok last year, Omma sent me photos of the whole family around the dinner table, and before them was a massive feast. The pictures showed them eating, laughing, and playing games. This was the first time I felt something about Chuseok. I never expected to be hit so hard with emotions. The only way to describe it was a sort of homesickness. In that moment of seeing those photos, the photos of my family together, I was desperately and unequivocally homesick. Homesick for a country I didn’t remember and homesick for people I’ve never met. My whole body ached and longed to be sitting at the table with them. I wanted to eat, laugh, and play games with my family. It took everything in me to not jump on the next flight out to Korea. Well, that and the fact that there was still a mandatory 2-week quarantine for foreigners entering the country.
But within my sadness, I realized something: This was the first time I was able to feel something for a Korean holiday. I know it was because I had found my family. I knew they were real, and this holiday that was once so foreign to me was about to become a reality in my future. They told me they wished I was with them in the photos and messages we exchanged. I hadn’t met my family in person but they had already accepted me. There will be many more Chuseoks to come and whether I’ll be in Korea for them or not, we still have one another. I will still be able to celebrate with them no matter where I am. One day I’ll be able to celebrate the holiday with them in Korea. Until then, we will celebrate together over video calls and texts. Until then, this will be enough.
This year, I will celebrate Chuseok with my chosen family. My best friend, Cat, is getting married this weekend and I’m her maid of honor. Cat came with me to Korea and got to meet my family so it’s only fitting she gets to celebrate with me as well. So the night before the wedding, the bridal party will eat Korean food and drink soju. Next year, I plan to get the full Chuseok experience with my family in Korea!
I realize this is my story and everyone has their own. And while I still celebrate holidays either working or alone, I am happy. I have come to learn that family is not all about bloodlines. I have an amazing chosen family in my city of St. Louis. If you have no one to celebrate with, you will always be welcome in my restaurant.
Melanie Hye Jin Meyer is a Korean American Adoptee. In search of herself and learning about the country, she came from she opened Tiny Chef, a Korean-inspired restaurant in St Louis, Missouri. She has self-taught herself Korean cuisine through her own research. Since then, she’s been featured on television and in print, including The Food Network, NPR, New York Times, and even Korea Times. But the most important thing she’s done above all was finding her family. She got to spend an entire month with them in June of 2022. She’s continuing to grow and enhance her business while saving money to travel back to Korea to hug her family again.
Facebook: Tiny Chef in St Louis