Typically, when Westerners think of the celebrations of Lunar or Chinese New Year, we think of the flashier displays: paper dragons, fireworks and parades.
But not all cultures celebrate the new year in such a manner. In Korea, the festivities are much more subdued and focus on honoring family.
A fete to honor the Lunar New Year, known in Korea as Seol-nal, was held at the Liverpool High School Ninth Grade Annex Sunday Feb. 10. The party was hosted by the Central New York Adoptive Families Korean Network (CNY AFKN), a support group for parents who have adopted children from Korea.
“This is one of our three big events during the year — it’s probably our biggest,” said Kathy Woodruff, CNY AFKN co-president. “It’s been going on for more than 20 years.”
The event included Korean crafts and food as well as a percussion performance from the Cheon Ji In, Syracuse University’s Korean percussion team, and traditional Korean Lunar New Year activities. Seol-nal is the second most important holiday in Korean culture, following Chuseok, or the Harvest Moon Festival, which is celebrated in the early fall.
The holiday is important, Woodruff said, because it celebrates family.
“We tend to think of the very flashy things when we think of Chinese New Year,” she said. “But in Korea, it’s more a day of paying respects to your ancestors and your culture.”
As part of CNY AFKN’s celebration, CNY Korean School President Jongwoo Han and his wife Kyunghee led those in attendance in the saebae, when youths bow and show respect to their elders. They are then rewarded with money (at LHS Sunday, the Hans gave out chocolate coins).
“That’s a huge part of the Korean New Year,” Woodruff said. “It’s a very moving display of children showing respect to their elders.”
Focus on culture
That display of reverence — a melding of traditional Korean culture and a focus on the children’s love for their adoptive parents — is fitting given the mission of the CNY AFKN, Woodruff said.
“It’s a way of celebrating Korean culture,” she said, “and that’s our main objective — to let our kids see their own culture.”
The CNY AFKN was founded in 1984. Then called The CNY Friends of Love the Children, the organization recently changed its name to better reflect the population it serves.
“The old name didn’t reflect what we were about,” Woodruff said. “We thought it should so that we could attract new families.”
While most of the families involved in the organization have adopted children from Korea, it’s open to anyone. Woodruff said CNY AFKN has helped numerous families navigate the adoption process.
“It’s very much like a natural birth — there are a lot of adjustments to be made physically and emotionally,” Woodruff said of adoption. “And as they get older, they have a lot of different questions. It’s nice to be able to have other parents that have been there and that can answer your questions.”
Woodruff joined the group several years ago with her own questions — she and her husband have two children from South Korea, a son, Alex, 8, and daughter, Celia, 5. The Woodruffs kept the children’s Korean names as their middle names.
“We looked at a lot of different programs — both international and domestic — and we felt the most comfortable with South Korea’s program,” Woodruff said. “Before we adopted, I joined two support groups. It really helped to talk to other parents and get a better idea of what we were looking at.”
Students spend time
In addition to support for parents, CNY AFKN offers plenty of programs for kids, including social networking, a 9-and-up youth group and mentoring with Syracuse University students. The mentoring program, Woodruff said, is especially valuable.
“The kids get to spend time with a Korean young adult,” she said. “There’s no pressure for them — just something fun to do.”
The Big Brother/Big Sister program falls under the auspices of SU’s Korean-American Student Association (KASA) and is run by sophomore Liz Nagle, who took the helm from senior Annette Lee this semester.
“She really got it going again,” Nagle said of Lee. “It’s something we had done years ago, but it kind of died down. But Annette brought it back to life.”
The program connects SU students with adopted Korean children from across Central New York. KASA holds events at SU and also sends students to events like the Lunar New Year celebration hosted by other groups.
Nagle said the program is fun for both students and kids.
“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “It’s a way for us to share our culture with the kids — to tell them about things they might not otherwise be aware of. And the kids get to learn about themselves and really get immersed in their own culture.”
In addition, Nagle said, it exposes kids, many of whom were adopted by white parents, to people with similar physical characteristics.
“They get to see people that look like them,” Nagle said. “That’s really important for them.”
Woodruff agreed, noting that exposing their kids to other Koreans is a major reason the CNY AFKN hosts events like the Lunar New Year celebration.
“It’s important for them to be able to see families that look like theirs,” Woodruff said. “We’ve got a lot of interracial families. This event is about combining those two cultures — the one they were born into and the one that chose them.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.