Hey, Kyung-hee, More Pancakes!

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Hey, Kyung-hee, More Pancakes!

For Woo Yon-ok, planning and shopping for Chuseok, Korea's thanksgiving day, began about a month ago. "I had to go to a seafood market yesterday to buy some shark meat and I need to make a fresh batch of kimchi this week," says Ms. Woo, 39, with a great rush in her voice.

Preparing for the ancestral rites on the Lunar New Year and Chuseok are the two biggest events of the year for Ms. Woo, of Sangdo-dong in Seoul, who is married to the eldest son in a family of two brothers and three sisters. "This year is particularly hard because my mother-in-law, 69-years-old, handed over the reins to me," says Ms. Woo.

The daunting task of preparing for the Chuseok memorial rites as well as feeding a clan of 20 on the big day has fallen squarely on Ms. Woo's shoulders, shoulders that are already showing the tension.

"Just the thought of all the work ahead gives me a migraine," she says. "There are times when I feel this tightening in my chest and I feel ready to explode." What Ms. Woo describes are the classic symptoms of "holiday syndrome," the results of the stress that strikes thousands of Korean women when a holiday, such as Chuseok, approaches, and they brace for a day of nonstop physical drudgery.

Some might ask, What could be such a big deal about getting a meal ready for a family get-together? For the American Thanksgiving, you just stick a stuffed turkey in the oven for a few hours, prepare some side dishes and dessert and, voila, dinner is ready. Alas, if only Korean Chuseok meals were as simple. If you have ever seen the table for Korean ancestral rites, fully decked with food, you would sympathize with Ms. Woo and her sisters.

Although the number and the kinds of dishes that go on the table for the long-deceased ancestors depends on the family tradition, Ms. Woo's family (or more precisely, Ms. Woo's husband's family), prepares more than 20 different dishes for the occasion. "It is ridiculous, but I have to make 12 different kinds of jeon [grilled flour pancakes]," says Ms. Woo. Four kinds of fish are put on the table, including shark meat, a prized dish in Ms. Woo's family. Add an assortment of meats, soup, vegetables, fruits and desserts, and Ms. Woo ends up spending more than 500,000 won ($385) merely on food.

"I would be lying if I said I didn't feel this was unfair," she says. "My sister-in-law offered to pitch in by preparing some dishes at her home, but my mother-in-law forbids it." According to the matriarch of the family, preparing foods at different homes will "squander the good fortune" that is to come from their ancestors in return for a sumptuous meal.

Money aside, what really angers Ms. Woo is how thankless her job is: "No one helps, except for my sister-in-law, that is my brother-in-law's wife, who arrives early in the morning to assist with the big breakfast. At the end of the day, after I've fed them three meals and numerous rounds of desserts, I don't get a single thank-you." But she seems resigned to her fate.

While the men watch TV or play card games and the mother-in-law and her daughters sit around and gossip, the two women who married into the family are stuck in the kitchen all day, nibbling on some leftovers as they stand in the kitchen between courses - an all-too-familiar scene on Chuseok in countless Korean homes. "I spend the whole day in pants and a T-shirt laboring in the kitchen while everyone wears their hanbok," says Ms. Woo, referring to the nice, traditional clothes. "I can't help but feel like a slave when I am serving them food." Last Lunar New Year's Day she and her sister-in-law did the dishes 12 times, she recalls.

"I suppose they are happy to see each other since such big gatherings don't take place often, but what about me?" asks Ms. Woo. She is originally from Taegu and still has family there. In 10 years of marriage, she has never been able to go home to celebrate the New Year or Chuseok.

Once the day is over, Ms. Woo goes to bed, saying it takes her about a week to recuperate from the ordeal. "There is not a part in my body that does not ache."

However, Ms. Woo is quick to emphasize that she does not think that ancestral rites should be done away with. On the contrary, she believes that her husband's ancestors are actually watching over them. When her husband's corporate gift business was hit hard during the recession a few years ago, an ancestor appeared in her dream. "My husband's grandfather told me to be patient and to wait things out," says Ms. Woo, and true to his words, the business did recover in time.

"All I want is some reasonableness," she says. "Why should I slave in the kitchen all week just so that the relatives can have leftovers for the next few days? And why can't men help by doing the dishes or watching the kids? Is that too much?"

These questions are no longer dismissed out of hand. Women Link, a women's rights group, this year sponsored a discussion on the historical roots of memorial rites. Jung Eun-sook, secretary-general of Women Link explains: "We found that the tradition as we know it today dates back only 100 years, to the height of Confucianism. In fact, prior to that time, there are abundant examples of brothers taking turns holding memorial rites and daughters taking part in paying respects - practices that are now not the norm."

The group, which has been holding annual campaigns since 1999 to make holidays more equal for the two sexes, is focusing this year on persuading the men to do their share of work. "Believe it or not, our informal survey showed men claiming to be just as much a victim of the old ways as the women," says Ms. Jung. Although they may never show it, they feel uncomfortable having to listen to the wife complain for days in advance and the mother grumbling that the wife is not doing even half as much work as she used to.

A recent survey by Gallup Korea is revealing. Of the 1,500 men and women surveyed, some 40 percent said Chuseok was not enjoyable. The foremost complaint among the women was the added work: 49 percent of the women who did not enjoy Chuseok cited the burden of household chores as a reason. Sixty-six percent of the men unhappy with Chuseok said the holiday was a financial burden.

Clearly, something needs to be done to make Chuseok a happier event for everyone. Yet, changes take place only gradually, admits Ms. Jung. "Mothers hold the real key to the problem, but after having lived in that tradition for 60 to 70 years, it is really difficult to ask them to give up their ways."

Meanwhile, as she gets ready for Chuseok, Ms. Woo has made a pact with her younger sister-in-law. "Once our mother-in-law passes away, we are going to buy ready-made food and join the family gathering as equals."

by Kim Hoo-ran

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