Burning in the New Year

Deaborum festival fireworks

Yesterday was the first full moon of the lunar new year, or 정월 대보금 (jeongwol daeborum – New Year Full Moon) as it’s known in Korean. The holiday has many traditions, like cracking peanut shells with your teeth and (possibly) drinking makkoli, Korean rice wine, in the morning for good health in the new year. But the best of the traditions involves a giant bonfire.

This fire, called a 달집 (dalchip – moon house), is supposed to burn away the bad luck from last year and usher in wishes for the new year. People write their wishes on paper and tie them to the firewood to be burned. Burning them sends them up into the heavens so they’ll come true.

dancing around the fire

There were several places in Ulsan holding events, and my friends and I opted to check out Ilsan Beach. Unfortunately the full moon was covered by clouds, but the festival was still on. We arrived in Ilsan to the sound of fireworks and the giant crackling bonfire. Apparently we were a little late, but we weren’t alone, as people kept charging the fire to throw in their wishes and be chased away by security.

dancing around the fire in funny white hats

After the fireworks, the drumming and dancing started. According to my friend, this was the favorite activity for many ajummas who had been drinking makkoli all day (for health). People in funny white hats led everyone dancing around the fire – including me and my friends. Some played traditional Korean drums while a group of women in hanbok sang a song praying for good fortune in the new year:



To me with my limited Korean ability, it sounded like they were singing something about potatoes (kamja, kamja!) but my native-speaking friend assured me that was not the case.

After dancing around the fire and throwing in their wishes, most people left the festival. Some stuck around to drink makkoli and eat kimchi and tofu and odeng. One guy was spinning a can full of fire around on a chain. According to wikipedia, this was originally done on farms to get rid of crop-destroying worms. On the beach, it’s done probably just to look cool. Which it really does! Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures but it looked something like this:


From Discovering Korea

The biggest celebration in the country seems to be in Jeju, where I heard they light an entire field on fire, so I suppose if you have the opportunity you’d want to be there 15 days after the lunar new year. But no matter where you are in Korea, you’re bound to be near a giant bonfire. I think it’s a pretty fun way to start the ‘new’ year – or at least far more exciting than New Year’s Resolutions.

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How Korea taught me to love singing

노래방 (noraebang) translates literally to ‘song room’ and is Korea’s very popular version of Karaoke. People go in small groups, and are given a private room, bookable by the hour. The usual set-up includes 2 microphones, 2 tambourines, a couple of song books, a giant remote control, a big couch around a table, and 1-3 TVs that show the song lyrics along with a totally irrelevant video of Korean couples breaking up or scenic beaches. Most places charge by the hour, but will add quite a bit more time for free if you start to run out. Some of the fancier establishments require that you buy some alcohol and food, but at most purchasing alcohol is optional (although that may actually be illegal) or you can bring your own. Some places have a pole in the middle of the room (for dancing?) and some have girls you can “order” to come and sing and dance with you! Some are very fancy, and some are in dingy basements.

noraebang with the fatherMost noraebangs seem to be open all night, from early evening til morning, although I can’t be sure because I’ve never found one closed when I wanted to go. I’ve never been one for karaoke, and was quite terrified by noraebangs at first. But visiting noraebangs quickly became one of my favorite evening activities in Korea. I’ve been more times than I can count, and have more than exhausted all of the songs I know in their song books (for myself as well as the friends that usually accompany me, I’m sure).

After-festival noraebang-ing
Picture taken by my friend Ellen.

Noraebangs are much more a part of Korean culture than karaoke is in America. I was pretty surprised when my first school outing went to a noraebang right after dinner, and everyone was expected to sing and dance together in one very cramped room. It was quite unlike any work party I’ve been to back in the US: I danced with the head teacher while the principal sang an old pop song, and then was asked to sing “Poker Face”. My lack of confidence was only made worse by everyone else’s impressive singing abilities. I don’t know if it’s because most Korean people grow up going to noraebangs and get more practice singing, but I think they’re much better than the average American at carrying a tune. After a couple crates full of Hite and Soju, my lack of ability didn’t matter. By the end of the evening, I had sang an ABBA song I’d never heard before with the gym teacher, and “Last Christmas” and “Love Me Tender” arm-in-arm with several less-than-sober colleagues.

As it turns out, this really isn’t anything out of the ordinary when it comes to workplace outings in Korea. At first I thought it was so “unprofessional”, but Korea just has it’s own kind of professionalism. And I have to say I appreciate it quite a bit.

Want to impress your Korean co-workers at the noraebang? Try some ABBA, Michael Jackson, Beatles, “Lemon Tree” by Fool’s Garden, or “I Believe I Can Fly”. Younger audiences will probably appreciate Lady Gaga, Adele (if you can pull that off!), Backstreet Boys, NSYNC or “Bad Case of Loving You” by Robert Palmer. Why some of these songs and groups are popular, I truly don’t understand…