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July 15, 2021

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June 7, 2021

Elodi’s Doljanchi: A Korean baby’s first birthday celebration

By Hannah Kays

Pictured above, Hannah's daughter, Elodi.

One of the traditions that many Korean Americans still hang onto is the celebration of our children’s first birthday called doljanchi. This is a long-held Korean tradition, which was something truly worthy of celebration back in the day, when infant mortality rates were high. Doljanchi is a time to wish the baby a long and prosperous life.

This past November and during perhaps the height of the pandemic, we celebrated my daughter’s doljanchi in honor of her first birthday. Typically, a doljanchi is a large community event filled with friends and family. But like many people around the world, we celebrated Elodi’s first birthday in a small intimate setting. Elodi’s doljanchi was so important to my mother that she went to Korea to buy Elodi’s first hanbok and traditional hat before she was even born. She even custom made my in-laws, who are not Korean, their very own hanboks to wear for this momentous occasion. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, my in-laws were not able to join us. Maybe one day we can do a very belated redo.

One of the main events at Elodi’s birthday celebration was the doljabi, which is a fortune-telling event where the baby is placed in front of various objects and urged to crawl to an object for selection. It is believed that the object the baby selects will foretell their future. For example, if the baby picks up a pencil, they will be destined to be an intellect. If the baby picks up money, they will be wealthy. Food, they will never go hungry. A spool of thread, they will live a long life.

These days, many parents get creative and put their own spin on the event. I, for one, could not help myself but to place a gavel in front of her. Ty, my husband, placed a toy ball. Elodi ultimately grabbed the pencil. For fun, we got her to crawl a second time and she chose the ball. “Yay! She will go to college on a basketball scholarship!” we joked and cheered. The doljabi was then followed by feasting on yummy rice cakes, fruits, japchae, and seaweed soup. Elodi received gifts and was adorned with gold rings and bracelets fit for a perfect little biracial Korean American baby.

As I reflect back on Elodi’s doljanchi, I cannot help but feel a wave of many mixed emotions. Never in a million years did I think that this is what our first year of parenthood would look like. At first, we had the typical first-time parents’ anxiety. The world felt like a death trap with all the warning labels, baby product recall reviews, and news articles that inundated our daily lives. But then a few months later, we were gut punched with the reality that the whole world was shutting down due to a global pandemic.

As the pandemic progressed, it was not just COVID-19 that we feared. There were riots, insurrections, police brutality, and mass shootings. Then the targeted violent attacks against Asian Americans began to happen. I only prepared to protect our baby from things like SIDS, choking hazards, and electric sockets. I did not prepare for racism and hate crimes. What world did I bring this baby into?

I do not know why I did not prepare myself for this. Growing up, I witnessed customers screaming at my parents to go back to their own country. I was often teased for my small eyes and for smelling like Korean food. There were even times we felt singled out by our teachers. My brother’s middle school teacher once made some sarcastic comment about him acting too Americanized, whatever that means. But I truly thought those days were gone. It has been so long since someone has made me feel like I did not belong here. For many Americans, this pandemic has shed light on some of our country’s darkest realities, and I can only pray that we will soon become better than this.

As a mother, I hope that Elodi always knows that she belongs here. I want her to confidently celebrate her heritage and know that practices like a doljanchi do not detract from what it means to be an American but are actually the true spirit of being an American. The beauty of this country lies in the diversity of its people.