[2020 note: I wasn't thinking about cultural appropriation when we celebrated Marcus's birthday or took these pictures or posted this page. I have very conflicted feelings about it now, and I wouldn't celebrate in the same way if we could do it all over again.]
It was back in 1995 when I first read about a tol--a Korean baby's first birthday party, with special ceremonial dress, foods, and customs--in a Korean cookbook. There were photographs showing the table set for the baby's first birthday, and I remember showing the page to Robert and saying something like, "Hey, if we have a kid, let's do this," and Robert agreeing. In 1999, married now, I had a co-worker in Los Angeles who married a Korean woman and told me all about his daughter's first birthday; Robert and I were renewed in our determination to do the same.
Well, we had a baby (as anyone who's taken even a casual glance at this site over the last year might be beginning to suspect), and our baby was only going to be one once, so we knew we had to seize the moment and go for the tol. We decided to have it at KamGangSang in Flushing, Queens, close to my parents' house in Bayside; we love the restaurant for dinner, and it's big, has a parking lot, has a (mostly) handicapped-accessible private room, has a (somewhat) English website, and has good reviews for their banquets (weddings and, of course, babies' first birthdays) on the web.
When I called back in May to inquire and reserve the date, I think the woman taking my name just figured I was one of those slacker second-generation Koreans who couldn't be bothered to learn to speak enough Korean to conduct a phone conversation. In June, though, Robert and I figured we had to go in and see the private room and make the final arrangements, so we went over on a Saturday when we were in New York on a visit. Randomly, it happened that there was a baby's first birthday going on in the room just when we arrived, which was fun--we could spy on the guests and peek in a tiny bit. The manager who was assigned to talk to us about the arrangements was more than a little bit startled at first, though. Finally, he just came right out with it: "Excuse me," he said to Robert, as we all sat around a table drinking tea. "You are not Korean. And--" (inclining his head toward me) "you also are not Korean." He paused, with the implied question in the air. Robert was both diplomatic and succinct as he explained that American culture doesn't have a special thing to mark a baby's first birthday, and that we wanted something very special for our baby, and therefore we would love to adopt this traditional Korean custom in our particular case. The manager seemed satisfied, and we moved on to the details of the event. Did we need an open bar? No (we got one anyway though). What about an ice sculpture? Uh, no. Perhaps a seven-foot-wide cloth banner with our son's head on it, larger than life size? We're okay, thanks.
We made the arrangements, sent out invitations, and collected RSVPs, and then on August 22nd--our baby's exact birthday--we finally had our baby's tol.
First of all, the room was gorgeous, and very nicely decorated, and the traditional table at the front looked lovely. The buffet, of course, was fabulous--in appearance, taste, and quantity. We had about 48 people, but we probably could have fed twice that--nearly everyone took food home, sometimes in large quantities. The sushi was assembled fresh in one corner and then set out (plus there was a whole bowl of sashimi too), and the kalbi were grilled fresh in another corner. There were soups (mul nam myung, pumpkin soup, seaweed soup), braised beef ribs, eel, Chinese/Korean sweet-and-sour pork and shrimp, chilled shrimp, crab legs, pan-fried Korean pancakes, noodles, miso butterfish, white rice, red bean rice, bibimbap, an assortment of sidedishes and beautifully arranged kimchi, and lots of other things. For dessert, there was birthday cake, duk cake, and lots of difference kinds of duk and sweets. Everything was delicious.
Marcus tolerated the dressing-up fairly well, though he absolutely refused to have anything to do, whatsoever, with the ceremonial hat. Beats me how all those other babies tolerate it! He was displeased about sitting in his throne, especially alone, and as he had a pretty heavy, phlegmy cold, he was a little under the weather and refused all of the food except for a nice beef rib. Yum, kalbi.
Then came the fortune-telling ceremony--what would baby pick? Rice, for riches? A pen, for a scholar? A Presidential Seal, for--well, the President? A computer mouse, for a techie? Nope--weirdly, a slightly cranky baby grudgingly chose a microphone, perhaps for a singer or comedian or sports announcer or minister or--uh, who else uses a microphone? Yep, as Bob, said, that was indeed the longshot there.
We had a lovely day, and we'll have more photos later [edited to add: yes! pictures available here!]. Meanwhile, the video here and these preview photos from our great photographer will have to suffice!
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Created: 8/22/09. Last Modified: 10/8/09.