Sunday, September 19, 2010

Thoughts on the Burden of Chuseok

It’s holiday time, here in Korea – well, South Korea, anyway. This coming Wednesday and the days it is sandwiched in-between comprise Chuseok, or what might be better-understood as “Korean Thanksgiving”. It’s the most important holiday in Korea, and this year, people are quite fortunate as the day upon which Chuseok falls allows citizens to enjoy more extra time off than they would in most years. Korea does have a lot of “Red Days” or official government-recognized holidays, but should they happen to fall on the weekend, there is no extra day off given “in lieu” of the Saturday or Sunday holiday. This year however, kinder companies are giving employees the Monday and Friday off as well – leading to a 9 day holiday – something that is much-needed for those who have fallen into the faster pace here.

Generally, for Chuseok, the idea is that Korean families head en masse to their “hometown” – usually a rural setting where grandparents may still reside – for a few days of celebrating the harvest and having an excuse to get-together and recognize the bond shared among family members dead and those still-living.

I'll focus on the positive next time, but for now, here's a little something that gets under my skin...

There are some things I don’t enjoy about Chuseok – most of which can be lumped into a wide-sweeping and knee-jerk distaste I have for the sexism that the holiday is laden with: traditionally speaking, Chuseok in modern day Korea is a chance for men to sit, watch TV, and drink to excess, while the women are solely responsible for preparing mountains of food and cleaning-up after the boys.

School lunchroom conversations are telling: “Are you looking forward to Chuseok?” I will ask. The men will respond by expressing their relief at having a few days off to relax, while the female teachers will generally sigh, as you or I might do, at the prospect of having to prepare 3 Christmas dinners in as many successive days, for a host of relatives who have very specific and time-honored expectations of your role as the wife (the worst-case scenario being the wife of an oldest son) – namely working your fool ass off to prove your worth. One teacher expressed sadness at the prospect of not being able to sit with her legs out at the low dinner table – as her live-in mother-in-law suggests that proper wives sit with their knees tucked under them – rubbing her knees absently at the memory of last year’s Chuseok feast.

These are the unpleasant things, though they do vary from household to household to be sure. I do reflect though on how I used to be back home – attached to a significant other at holiday time, pondering how we might make that all important decision about whose home we visit and when – traditions do matter to all of us at least to some extent. Here in Korea, it’s generally simpler. As a woman, if you marry a man, you become part of that man’s family in quite a de facto sense (even though, interestingly enough, you don’t take his name – we aren’t perfect either). Come holiday time, Chuseok is spent at HIS family’s home, and this is rarely even up for debate. Sure, there might be side visits to the wife’s place of birth – but it is generally considered only after plans have been centered around the husband’s family.

And, as was mentioned briefly above, woe be the woman who chooses to marry the oldest son. Still quite strictly adhered to is the concept of the eldest son being the most important child – and therefore the one saddled with the greatest of expectations. Most of this was gleaned from scattered lunchtime curiosity conversations with co-teachers, so take it as you will, but man – I could tell you stories. I’ll give one example:

When asking one female teacher at my school what her plans were for Chuseok, she shared a lot:

1) Her husband was the oldest son in his family, and was therefore failing at finding a wife willing to make the match until his late 30s – quite the rarity for men who aren’t the first-born. I would agree that this would be a foreboding piece of information for any young lady to hear from a suitor – “You’re the first born son? Thanks for dinner, but I’ll have to be going…”

2) Her husband’s university was paid-for by the parents, while his siblings were left to fund their post-secondary education on their own (but there’s more).

3) Though her husband’s siblings all make more money than her husband does, he, as the oldest son, is still responsible for shouldering greater family expenses and debts – this despite the fact that one of his siblings is a lawyer and another, a doctor.

4) Her husband’s parents now live with my co-teacher, her husband, and their two children – though the lawyer sibling has no children of his own, and could certainly afford the space and money required to assist.

5) Her husband’s younger sister decided to pursue a university degree later into her adult years, and my co-teacher had to cover the cost with her own salary – such, as an example, is the duty of the Wife of the Oldest Son (in capitals for ease of understanding).

6) For Chuseok, since mother-in-law lives at home, my co-teacher will not be seeing her own family on her parents’ side as it falls within her list of related duties to prepare food over the entire 3 days of Chuseok as husband’s family migrates to Seoul. Hopefully, she will find the time required to make the journey south after the big day to see her parents and siblings.

It’s easy for this stuff to make me kind of, well… mad.

The truth is, there’s some stuff about traditions here that I am happy to see changing with new generations. I’m sure we would each be hard-pressed to find anyone among our friends and neighbours who would see the enforcement of these gender roles as a positive thing, unless of course you happen to be friends with older conservative Korean men. The above list of stresses, duties, and fading lights at the end of the tunnel at times for people like my co-teacher does not accurately represent everyone’s experience here either. Still – worth mentioning that it does for some.

This Thanksgiving, raise a glass to the ladies of Korea, and be thankful if you can count yourself among the lucky ones who have a husband who at least offers to carve the bird or lead the assault on the dishes.


Kid Atomic said...

Man, that makes me sad to hear. Do you think this kind of thing will disappear within a couple of generations? Or do you think it might be too convenient an arrangement for guys to readily give up on it?

Also: re: your other post, I got the Arcade Fire album for my birthday, and agree that it is brilliant. In a lot of ways I find their sound has mellowed a little since their first album (not necessarily a bad thing), but I don't think there's a bad song on there.

George Bailey Sees The World! said...

It makes me sad to hear, too. I in no way think that this is the case for everyone in Korea, but I've heard such stories enough to know that it's common.

Of course, the whole deal about favouring the oldest son as an insurance plan kind of rubs me the wrong way, too. I get needing your kids to take care of you as you age - especially in a country where social security is such a relatively new concept - but damn, cursed I would be if I popped-out first. Seems like breeding ground for resentment among siblings.