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Shin Ho-gyun, left, serves rice cake and dumpling soup Wednesday to Spc. Christopher Tait, 20, of San Diego, and Sgt. Samantha Aston, 23, of Mercersbury, Pa. Shin invited a group of 8th Army soldiers to his Seoul home to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

Shin Ho-gyun, left, serves rice cake and dumpling soup Wednesday to Spc. Christopher Tait, 20, of San Diego, and Sgt. Samantha Aston, 23, of Mercersbury, Pa. Shin invited a group of 8th Army soldiers to his Seoul home to celebrate the Lunar New Year. (Teri Weaver / S&S)

Shin Ho-gyun, left, serves rice cake and dumpling soup Wednesday to Spc. Christopher Tait, 20, of San Diego, and Sgt. Samantha Aston, 23, of Mercersbury, Pa. Shin invited a group of 8th Army soldiers to his Seoul home to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

Shin Ho-gyun, left, serves rice cake and dumpling soup Wednesday to Spc. Christopher Tait, 20, of San Diego, and Sgt. Samantha Aston, 23, of Mercersbury, Pa. Shin invited a group of 8th Army soldiers to his Seoul home to celebrate the Lunar New Year. (Teri Weaver / S&S)

Sgt. Chris Ryanczak gets ready to eat a rice cake from a bowl of soup filled with dumplings, egg and seaweed, a traditional Korean dish. In the foreground is Shin Won-suk, 8.

Sgt. Chris Ryanczak gets ready to eat a rice cake from a bowl of soup filled with dumplings, egg and seaweed, a traditional Korean dish. In the foreground is Shin Won-suk, 8. (Teri Weaver / S&S)

SEOUL — Shin Hang-kyun looked around his living room Wednesday morning and decided that this year’s Lunar New Year celebration would prove his luckiest yet.

That’s because he had visitors — six soldiers from the 8th Army who hail from California, Ohio, Massachusetts, Texas and New Mexico — to help him celebrate the “Seoul-nal” holiday and the beginning of the Korean annual calendar.

“Your visit makes this year the best year,” Shin told the group, with the help of a translator. “This will make it the luckiest year in (my) life.”

The soldiers went to the Shin apartment in Seoul’s Mapo neighborhood to learn about Lunar New Year, the day Koreans honor their family and enjoy their culinary skills. Luck factors into both areas, as the families first feast on foods meant to bring prosperity, then offer tea and food to their ancestors in a bowing ceremony.

The visit was part of U.S. Forces Korea’s Good Neighbor Program, an effort by USFK commander Gen. Leon LaPorte to foster better relations between Americans serving on the peninsula and South Koreans. The Good Neighbor office worked with the Gangnam District government office to arrange the trip, which also included a stop at the Insadong shopping district and Duksu Palace, said Maj. Iris Cowher, who runs the program.

The group first had breakfast at the home of Shin’s brother, Shin Ho-gyun, in northern Seoul. Ho-gyun’s wife, Min Kyung-sook, had stayed up all night to prepare the meal: 35 dishes filled with fried cakes, rice dumplings, kimchis and fruit cocktails.

The meal’s centerpiece was a beef-broth soup filled with egg, seaweed, dumplings and rice cakes, pasta-like discs and balls meant to bring good luck.

Sgt. Samantha Astor, 23, of Pennsylvania, a flutist with the 8th Army band who has been in South Korea for about two months, struggled a little with the slippery metal chopsticks but said she thoroughly enjoyed her first bowl of dumpling soup. Cowher politely asked for water after sampling one of the spicy kimchi, or pickled cabbage, dishes, but continued to eat that and the pickled seaweed next to it.

“If your nose isn’t running, it’s not right,” Sgt. Chris Ryanczak, 33, of New Mexico, said later of the spicy vegetables.

After breakfast, the group watched as Shin Won-suk, 8, and Shin Hye-su, 12, bowed to their parents. In return, they each got 10,000 won — a little less than $10.

Then the group made the trip to Mapo and the elder Shin brother’s home. There, the family lit incense and offered fruits, desserts and fried cakes to their ancestors.

Spc. Steven Johnson, 29, of Cleveland learned that many Koreans believe a person’s skill at using chopsticks indicates a person’s intelligence.

“So am I a genius if I use them with both hands?” he asked, and after a delay of translation, the Shin family chuckled. Then the family presented the group with another meal, generous samplings from the offerings made to the ancestors.

By 11 a.m., the soldiers had eaten two meals and learned, at least by Korean tradition, they should consider themselves one year older.

“How do you say, ‘I’m stuffed?’” Johnson said.


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