On Confucian holidays, I sit at the “girls’ table”

Somewhere in the back drawers of my mind I keep a frayed, yellowed photograph. It is a snapshot of how I imagine an ideal Chuseok meal. Chuseok is a South Korean holiday that celebrates the coming of autumn and a successful harvest season. In many ways, it is comparable to Thanksgiving. I have spent the first half of my life celebrating the latter, and the second half celebrating the former.

Here is the scene I imagine:

My whole family, from grandson to great-grandfather, is gathered around a glossed wooden table laden with golden pears and crimson apples. Rosy baby cheeks and wrinkled, wise faces alike are smiling all around. In the courtyard, trees heavy with yellow ginko leaves and red maple plumage bow their branches. Fathers enclose their sons’ hands in theirs, and together, they light a stick of incense in veneration of our ancestors. Together, they whisper thanks for another bountiful harvest.

It is a beautiful scene. It is a symbol of my Korean heritage — of my culture, my tradition. Yet for the past seventeen years, a nagging sense of doubt has always pressed at my stomach whenever I think of this picture. This past Chuseok, I finally figured out why: my real Chuseok looks nothing like this. It was all a figment of my imagination.

I live in an apartment in Seoul city. So do all of my grandparents. Here, it is mid-September but the skies are still grey. The leaves are still green. Where there should be a courtyard is an asphalt parking lot. The local fauna is closer to shrubbery than trees. As I examine this photograph, the sense that something is wrong grows stronger. My smile fades and my brows furrow. Comfort morphs into confusion. I am perplexed. Then finally, a sudden revelation slaps me across the face.

I find out what’s wrong: I’m not in it. I’m not in the photograph. I rub my eyes. I run my finger carefully over each smiling face: my brother, my dad, my cousins, my uncles, my grandfather, even ancestors long past — they are all there, smiling. . .

But where am I?

The girls of South Korea ask you, “Where are we?”

The women of South Korea ask you, “Where are we?”

Flip to the back. We are in the kitchen, on the floor, and at the “girls’” table.

This Chuseok, as all the grandchildren were called to eat, I stepped into the dining room, standing right next to my younger brother. Our grandmother was met us with a smile at the doorway — she gestured my brother to one table, and me to another. Soon after, a pair of my younger cousins scurried in. The older, a boy, was pointed to join my brother, and the youngest— a little girl in sixth grade — was pointed to me.

My little girl cousin and I sat and waited twenty minutes to eat, like good girls — because in Confucian culture, boys are served meat first. Because they were sons, and grandsons, and the only woman seated at their table was my youngest aunt, who was pregnant with a son. Because Confucius said so. Sitting there, as a feast was laid out on the other side of the room and as my little girl cousin squirmed at my feet, I stepped back into the depths of my mind and I started walking. I kept going until I reached the dimly lit rows of drawers lining the farthest back wall. I dug up my special photograph. At first, I the only thing I could do was stare — overwhelmed, frustrated, and confused — because I had absolutely no idea what to make of it. It was supposed to be a symbol of my heritage. Of my culture. Of my tradition. And yet I was no part of it. I only stopped staring when my glare bore a hole through the coated paper.

I hear stories from other girls. My best friend is the oldest of three children: the middle child is a girl, and the youngest is a boy. Last weekend, she was sitting next to her dad, chatting about her brother and their family around a plate of crisp Chuseok apples, when a passing sentence caused something to click in her head: she realized — she later told me — that her parents had “basically tried for kids until they got a son.”

Revelations like hers are not uncommon. My friend hears stories, too. In one story, a grandfather flips over a dinner table covered with food because his son and and daughter-in-law refuse to try again for a son. He is not satisfied with their two daughters. His two granddaughters.

My grandfather cried when my younger brother was born. When I came into this world, his eyes were barren.

I am his first grandchild. I am his granddaughter.

I am a girl in a Confucian world. Here, I live on the back side of the photograph; I stand with all the other girls who were relegated to the “girls’ table.” Our society prefers boys over girls. But this custom is our heritage, our culture, and our tradition.

My immediate friends and I are lucky. We go to an international school. Our idols are Amy Poehler and Beyoncè and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg. But every Chuseok, our bubble is popped. We are brought home — home, where they point to the corner and tell us, “You are girls.” Home, where our grandmother shuns us for being girls. Home — a place that feels alien.

Even at home, will meet their eyes. We will tell them, “Yes. We are girls.” And we could wish for nothing else.

I open the crumpled, yellow photograph one last time. With a sigh, I outstretch my palm. The picture catches the autumn wind. I let it flutter away.

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