Young, single and out of hereWhat a stressful time this is for married Koreans. They think of the holidays and are muddled with fear, faced with the challenge of spending extra days with their children and their in-laws. As if all the family weddings and anniversaries weren’t enough, now they have the Lunar New Year to deal with.
Holiday disasters are on everyone’s minds already, from shoppers grousing about the high cost of vegetables to doctors warning women to beware of stress-related illnesses from spending the holiday cranking out meals for 15. Face it ― fulfilling a trainload of family obligations is just part of the reality of being a married Korean.
But the holiday isn’t any easier for Korea’s bachelors and bachelorettes. If anything, it may be harder.
It’s a formal setting. You do what you are expected to do ― eat holiday food, bow to your ancestors, ask routine questions about your nieces’ grades and patiently endure harassment for not being married yet.
In a recent, unscientific survey by Joins.com, a Web site affiliated with the JoongAng Ilbo, one out of three singles ― whether unmarried or without a partner at all ― said they found the holidays “burdensome” due to emotional pressures at family gatherings, most notably relatives’ teasing or complaining about their solo status. Up to 30 percent of them said they suffered from stress-related symptoms after long holiday weekends.
The frustrations add up for single Koreans during the holidays. Many restaurants are closed during the Lunar New Year. So are many cafes, shopping malls, gyms, bathhouses and clubs. The TV programming this time of year is an absolute affront to single life, often filled with soap operas tirelessly promoting the notion of family values. The only alternatives become hanging out at convenience stores or nibbling rice cakes in your bedroom.
At least, that’s how things worked until recently, when many Korean singles began to take matters into their own hands, making plans far in advance of the big day to spend the holidays in a less stressful atmosphere.
One option many young Koreans choose is leaving the city, like Yum Hyun-ho, who plans to go skiing with three of his single friends from work. Mr. Yum, 30, said he hasn’t attended family gatherings in a long time, due to his heavy workload, and his relatives’ questions about why he’s still single.
“It’s not that I don’t understand their concerns,” says Mr. Yum, a 30-year old distributor for a trade company. “But I just don’t want to deal with it anymore. It’s pesky. People just can’t stand something different from their narrow vision of a social norm.”
Mr. Yum admitted, though, that singles most likely put pressure on themselves, too.
“We’ve observed that we have a notable rise in membership after long holiday weekends,” says an official at Sunwoo, a matchmaking company. “We assume this is related to complaints people have been hearing at family gatherings during the holidays about their solo status. Sometimes it’s the parents of the singles who, out of frustration, come to sign up their children after the holidays.”
Some companies certainly seem to know what’s on singles’ minds this time of year. Hana Tour, a local travel agency, introduced “a solo event package,” a two-day trip to Gangwon province specifically targeting single travelers who want to get out of Seoul during the holiday. For 59,000 won each ($50) ― with no “single supplement” to pay! ― a busload of single travelers will travel from Seoul to Mount Taebaek, and spend the next day hiking and going to hot springs. The company says there is even a 10-percent discount for those who come without friends. “Please don’t ask why” is the catchphrase on the company’s Web site.
“Holidays can certainly be a bothersome occasion for singles in Korea, because they have to put up with a lot of unnecessary blame,” says Cho Myung-ku, a staff member at Hana Gangsan, a branch of Hana Tour. “We thought this package was timely for single Koreans, while compensating for some of their distress at a reasonable price.”
Overseas packages are also selling out fast. Both Asiana and Korean Air said last week that they had booked almost all seats for international flights during the Lunar New Year holiday, from Wednesday through Sunday. Lee Chang-seong, a marketing representative at Jayu Travel, noted that their Airtel packages to Hong Kong, Miyazaki, Cebu and Phuket ― destinations which have been particularly popular among local travelers in their 20s and 30s ― are practically sold out for the entire holiday.
Park Yeon-su, 29, who left last week for a 10-day trip to Sydney, says the traditional holidays, particularly Chuseok and the Lunar New Year, have become more casual occasions for her generation.
“In the past, you were obliged to spend the lunar holidays with your family,” says Ms. Park, a graduate student in management. “At least for me, the number of family gatherings has been reduced a great deal, especially since my grandparents passed away. So it’s become a less of a burden for me to be absent from family meals.
“I am very keen to travel more often when I have the time, because once you are married here you don’t have as much free time, due to fulfilling other family obligations as a parent and a daughter-in-law,” she said.
As younger Koreans’ concept of the holidays has shifted to one of having more days for fun, more retailers are offering services to meet the demand. The Grand Hyatt Seoul hotel is opening its ice rink to non-guests over the lunar weekend. California Fitness is keeping its gym open, though with reduced hours. COEX Mall will be open throughout the holidays, including its convention halls, museums and movie theaters.
“Normally the number of shoppers doubles at COEX during the holidays,” says Oh Su-young, a public relations manager for the mall. “It’s a multi-purpose mall with lots of free services for younger shoppers to try out, like Playstation, X-box and a mega-bookstore.”
Still, more establishments will be closed than open during the holiday ― an indication that to most Koreans, it’s still a time to spend at home with family. But that may be changing for good.
“The meaning of traditional holidays is practically lost during the transition from an agricultural society to an industrial period,” says Lee Hee-gil, a director of the Korea Marriage Culture Institute, a center researching marriage-related issues.
“Among the younger generation, these family gatherings have become meaningless rituals filled with old-fashioned formalities, because the idea of celebration among younger Koreans is centered on recreation ― like karaoke, drinking or other pastimes they enjoy,” Mr. Lee said. “The fact that many young Koreans try to find restaurants to eat out at with friends on holidays, when there is plenty of food at home, shows that attending family meals on traditional holidays here has merely become a duty.
“On top of this,” Mr. Lee added, “marriage has become a matter of choice among recent generations, and people are more intolerant of other people discussing their private lives.”
by Park Soo-mee