Busan's work schedule has been causing us some problems lately. I've been as patient as I can manage, but it's an adjustment for me, not just to the culture, but also to a part of life, and a part of being a supportive significant other. Suffice it to say, it's been a lesson of all three kinds for Busan as well. Over the course of the past month, three of the four weekends, Busan has ended up having to cancel our dates. His product was scheduled to launch on Valentine's Day, and after the disappointment of yet another canceled weekend, I made the executive decision to just cancel the holiday altogether. He swore he could get away from work on time, but I wasn't convinced I could handle the blow if I prepared something (as it is the custom for the woman to do for the man here, on Valentine's Day), only to have to sit there and stare at it alone on Valentine's evening, while he pulled yet another late night shift.
There was another reason why I didn't feel prepared to face that little potential bump this week, which is that February 16th is my late grandfather's birthday. I knew it was going to be a hard week already.
Things were tense between Busan and myself all week. When Tuesday rolled around, I was let off work early and feeling rather blue. I decided that I needed to do something both to occupy my time, and to help me feel a little better about my grandfather's impending birthday.
In our family, the traditional birthday custom is my grandmother's red velvet cake. So, on Tuesday afternoon, I set about baking red velvet cupcakes.
It might seem like an odd thing to do, but it can't be that odd, because I found out that last night, my family back in Texas decided to go out to eat at my grandfather's favorite restaurant, in honor of his birthday as well. There must be something instinctual about it, then.
In Korea, they have a word for it -- 제사, or a customary meal prepared and offered to ancestors and relatives who have passed along with a ceremony that involves bowing, traditionally performed on the death anniversary.
But I don't want to remember the day my grandfather died. I don't want to remember anything about that time.
I'd rather remember the happy times -- his birthday seems so much better. My grandfather's birthday falls exactly a month before mine, and I somehow always grew up imagining that formed some kind of psychic link between us. I can't think of my birthday without thinking of his. I can't think of him without thinking of his birthday.
On Valentine's Day evening, I was in the midst of cleaning up after the baking and talking to a friend on the phone, when my doorbell rang. Busan was standing outside wrapped up to his ears in his scarf and cradling a box of Valentine's cakes in his gloved hands. He looked down when I opened the door, and his eyes showed the big fake nervous smile he does when he's afraid I'll be angry. He pushed the cakes toward me and announced that he had only come to drop them off (an hour and a half from work, an hour and a half commute back to his home) and not to be mad, and that he would go.
Of course, I invited him in. He spied the cupcakes still cooling on the table and looked a little confused. "For my grandfather," I explained. "His birthday is on Thursday. We make this kind of cake for birthdays in my family."
He unwrapped his scarf and nodded as he sat down at the table and said, "아, 제사...."
When my grandmother came to visit, it's fair to say Busan made a pretty big mess of things. She's still far from having forgiven him, and she can't resist making comparisons between him and my grandfather. They don't think of others enough, they don't realize the impact their actions have. They don't pay enough attention, or understand quickly enough, or empathize enough. I think the darker parts of her mind are afraid I'm going to waste my life with him, the way she sometimes must feel she wasted her life with my grandfather. But what she can't have entirely forgotten are all of the reasons she fell in love with my grandfather to begin with.
My grandfather had his faults -- we all do. And I know my grandmother tried her best, and loved him in a way that I don't even have the capability to understand, at this early age in life. But he loved her, too. He had a clumsy way of loving, and it didn't always come out right, but up until the day he died, he would retell the story of how he had met her dragging on the strip in their small town, and how he had told his friend that very night that that was going to be the woman he would marry. His eyes would fucking shine the way you read about in stories, but don't fully understand until that rare chance life provides you with to see it for yourself. He loved her with all of his heart.
For my grandmother and me, love is a practical thing. An action. A way of life. For men like my grandfather and Busan, it's an incommunicable emotion that you feel to your very core, even if you don't always act the way my grandmother and I believe love demands you should. Our eyes may never shine, but we show our love through daily tasks. They may always fall short on that end, but they will always light up when they stop to think.
In a way, it's a different language. And what I've learned from my grandparents, if not also from the very real language differences that Busan and I have, is that you have to take the time to translate, or you'll never make it.
So I sat at that table that night with Busan, a bottle of makgeolli and those cupcakes between us, and I translated.
For me, love is an action.
And that's why 제사 ultimately does make sense. What do you do when you love someone? You take care of them. When they are gone, and you love them, and you miss them, you miss taking care of them. What's the very basest action that displays care for another human being? Providing nourishment -- sustenance. Be it emotional, spiritual or physical.
I'll work on lighting up. Busan will work on the proofs of love. And we will both work on understanding that our languages are not the same. But the nice thing about languages is, they can be learned, with patience, persistence and time.