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Korean New Year’s Tradition Mashup

Sometimes I think that being an immigrant is like being a cultural zombie – we have one foot in traditions that are alive and the other in ones that have long since been abandoned by the motherland but we never got the memo because we’re thousands of miles away from where we were born. New Year’s Day celebrations in my house are like this. 

My Caucasian, American-born husband was telling his first-generation Korean colleagues about putting on his hanbok and bowing to my parents on New Year’s Day, and they burst out laughing. “Uh, we don’t do that anymore.”

I think the tradition used to go something like this: we eat New Year’s Day dtukgook (rice cake soup) for good luck, then don our silk hanboks and bow seh bae to our elders and wish them a good year. After they bow and share their new year’s blessings, children receive gifts of money and words of wisdom. 

New year's day rice cake soup: "dduk gook"

Growing up, my sisters and I used to see this as more transactional and called it, “Bowing for cash.” Needless to say, the new year’s greeting “saehae bok manee badesaeyo” is one of the few Korean phrases my kids and their cousins have ready at the tip of their American tongues.

What is different in our house though is that we have taken this opportunity to share our new year’s wishes with each other. We start with, “This year, I wish for you…”  

Although I always plan to be more prepared, somehow I never have any thoughts ready for this moment. As I sit down to receive my children’s bows, I am grumpily thinking to myself, “I wish for you functional hands so that you can pick up your &*@#&# clothes off the bathroom floor,” or “In 2020. I wish for you the ability to put down your $%&#* phone once in a while.” But by the time I see them sink slowly to the floor and then sit up again, the moment softens.

Then I am overwhelmed by the force of all my wishes for my children as they grow into adulthood, which apparently, and heart-breakingly, necessitates some degree of separation from us. And by their hopes for us. In these few precious minutes, this super-hierarchical ritual makes us equals as people stopping to see each other moving into 2020 the best we can.  

Lasting friendships. A powerful voice. Vulnerability. These were a few of our wishes for Eli and Yumi.

We invited our blonde nephews into this celebration this year and their ability to cut to the heart of love and connection left us all in tears.

So instead of “cultural zombies,” maybe immigrant traditions can more accurately be described as a “Cosmic Crisp,” the engineered apple that delivers on all the sweetness, flavor and crispiness of the best predecessor apples. 

My parents receiving their New Years bows

Being a “Cosmic Crisp” immigrant has been essential to powering me to become an entrepreneur. Taking the best of different worlds and smashing them together. Tokki brings the beautiful #bojagi tradition from Korea together with the digital personalized messages in a way that I hope will make people smile bigger in 2020.

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