Chuseok, Korea’s version of the American Thanksgiving, is this Saturday. Along with the Lunar New Year, it’s one of the biggest holidays of the year.
It’s deeply rooted in tradition, which makes it a really interesting holiday to an outsider. I love to ask my students about it. Instead of my typical “What did you do last weekend–I’ll give one point to each team that answers” I have now been asking, “What will you do for Chuseok; I’ll give one point to each team that answers.” (Seriously. Points to Korean kids are like crack to a junkie…just one more!!)
It’s a holiday where the beautiful saleswomen usually adorned in mini skirts and go-go boots at the big supermarket don beautiful Korean traditional dresses and sell plastic-wrapped gift sets of Spam, apples, and teas.
It’s a holiday where extended families come together, usually in the countryside of Korea, where most people still have roots. Young people these days live in the cities. But many grandparents still live in rural farming areas.
The children and any new brides dress in hanbok, traditional Korean dress. And families take trips to their ancestors’ burial sites, silent moss-covered mounds that arise like lumps from hidden hillsides, where families bow to their ancestors and bring gifts of rice and food and the occasional bottle of soju.
But for women, it is considered a “Labor Day,” as one young Korean wrote in my newsletter for foreigners, “Get in Gwangju.”
As a child, Chuseok always made me excited. Everything in Chuseok was enjoyable to me from sweet, half-moon shaped rice cake, ‘Songpyeon’ to games we family members played together. But mom told me, “Things will not be the same as now when you grow up”. I never understood what it meant, but now I do because I’m no longer waiting for Chuseok. I’m not that child who used to count days before Chuseok….
For many Korean women, the holiday is not about finding some time off, but about tiring themselves for others. Chuseok ,as one of the biggest national holidays, is not the exception. There are tons of things to do for women like preparing food for ancestral services, making tables for family and guests, doing dishes and cleaning rooms. Everything seems to be their duty. They’re doing chores nearly around the clock, because it was a Korean custom that males are not responsible for house chores. We even have a word ‘Chuseok syndrome’ for women who suffer from muscle pain after a hardwork(!).
Things changed a lot but Korea is a place where legacy still lives. Many think the same way as in the past, especially the elderly and men do. With certainty, Chuseok is a meaningful family reunion for Koreans. However, on women’s side, I’m not sure it is. Looking around me, I’m not the only one who’s not welcoming Chuseok with all my heart.
Luckily for me, I am not a Korean woman. Even luckier, I’m married to Whit. So we–the object of envy to our co-workers as they have told us time and time again–are heading to the second highest mountain in South Korea, Mount Jiri, for a weekend of hiking and camping with our friends, Rik and Sam.