Okay, so this shoot wound up not only being a crash course in ceremonial first birthdays, but also one in life and death in a way I hadn't quite experienced before.
We'll do the life part first:
I was referred by a friend to shoot a party for sweet, tiny little Francis and the milestone of his first birthday -- an exciting occasion for most families, but particularly so in Korean culture. After brushing up on the subject (read: Googling), I learned that the first birthdays of Korean children are celebrated with particular fervor, as there was a time when many babies did not live long enough to celebrate that first trip around the sun, and also, that there would be a ceremonial aspect involved. Serving as a means to predict the course of the child's life, at some point during the gathering, several objects get laid out on a mat, and the baby is placed opposite them. It's said that whatever they gravitate toward and ultimately pick up or play with ('choose') bears weight on their choice of future career path. Common examples are string for longevity, a medal to represent justice, pens and paper for artistry, a bundle of coins for banking, a stethoscope, and so on.
Thus Francis, his parents, grandparents, great-grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends all gathered on an overcast Saturday afternoon to ring in his first year triumphantly -- lots of hugs, and lots of smiles, and two cakes, and a ton of babies. After about two hours of shooting, Francis' father, SJ, implored me to take a break; his grandmother basically strongarming me to sit down and join everyone for a bite to eat. I wound up spending a good amount of time with Aunt Rachel, talking about music and cultural differences, and life in Seattle and life in LA, and the insanely good shrimp they were serving, and these bizarre, dense desserts they kept passing around on paper plates.
The tables were cleared and the doljanchi ceremony came next, with everyone gathered around -- Francis 'chose' the medal that represented justice, which was fitting, seeing as SJ is an attorney! He was long overdue for a nap at that point and proceeded to go into low-grade meltdown, and the party wrapped up shortly afterward.
Here's a bit of what the day looked like, from the setting up onward: