Be thankful, at least the children like Chuseok...“Who the hell invented holidays?” That’s what Shin Yong-min’s mother used to say at certain times of the year, particularly Chuseok. Cooking, cleaning, shopping, traffic jams and all that tiptoeing around the in-laws. Who needs it? Well, whether she likes it or not, the Korean traditional harvest festival is just around the corner.
When Mr. Shin was young, he couldn’t understand why his mother disliked Chuseok. For a little boy, it was just a great day to wake up to the sounds of a bustling kitchen and the wonderful smells of pan-fried foods. It was also fun to make songpyeon, a kind of rice cake everyone shares on the holiday, with relatives who haven’t visited for a while.
But as Mr. Shin grew older, he came to understand how burdensome the holiday could be for adults.
It’s not just Mr. Shin’s mother who gets stressed by holidays. According to a recent online poll by the Interpark, an online shopping mall, only 12 percent of its 1,014 members said they were not stressed by Chuseok. The sources of holiday stress for men and women were quite different. More than a third of female respondents are stressed by housework, and 24 percent by money. Meanwhile, 29 percent of male respondents were most stressed by money, while 22 percent felt it was traffic jams, and just 16 percent were bothered by housework.
That makes sense ― the women do the housework. The first daughter-in-law is usually put in charge, and her duties begin with shopping and cleaning. Before the holiday starts, the first daughter-in-law has to prepare the house for visitors and buy foods for rituals on the day of Chuseok, which is Sunday this year.
“My mother is the first daughter-in-law. In addition, she had three daughters and no sons. While other daughters-in-law had sons, my grandmother made my mother do almost everything [because she was angry at the lack of male heirs],” said Jeong Yoon-mee, 26. “Since I was an elementary school student, my sisters and I worked with my mom during every Chuseok holiday, cleaning the house and pan-frying patties,” she added.
Although the stress may be slightly less than for the first daughter-in-law, younger daughters-in-law are also stressed by buying gifts for their parents-in-law and visiting their husbands’ homes where most of them don’t feel comfortable because of the notoriously bad relationship between Korean daughters-in-law and their husband’s mothers.
Depending on the daughter-in-law, most women hardly leave the kitchen until the holiday ends because there is so much food to make for rituals and meals to feed the extended family, who have gathered to spend the holiday from all over the nation. Worst of all, they have to eat after the men who play “go-stop” or watch television while their wives do the cooking.
“Although husbands help women more than before, the women still do most of the holiday work,” said Im Yoo-soon, 55, a housewife who has been doing the same routine for 25 years in a row. “The Chuseok ‘holiday’ only exists for men,” Ms. Im continued, “It’s just another working day for most women.”
Incredibly, a medical disorder called “holiday trauma” actually exists in Korea. “It mostly involves the relationship between a man’s family and his wife,” said Koh Kyung-bong, a professor of psychology at Yonsei University. “Communication is the best way to relieve such stress, although it can’t prevent wives from visiting the in-laws. It is important that husbands put themselves in their partners’ shoes to understand the situation.” But if their wife is so stressed that she might need an ambulance? “It’s better if the husband visits his parents alone,” said Dr. Koh.
The traffic jams also drive some people crazy. “Last year, it took about 15 hours by ‘express’ bus to travel from Gwangju to Seoul. Normally it’s just three and half hours,” said Kim Hae-ra, 32. “It was so awful last year, so this time I woke up early on the first day train tickets went on sale.”
She barely managed to get tickets on the wrong dates. “Even though I clicked the ‘reservation’ icon at 6 o’clock sharp, exactly when sales began, I could only purchase tickets on days before and after the holiday,” Kim said. “Last year’s experience was so terrible that I was even willing to use two vacation days [Friday and Monday] to avoid the traffic jam.”
In addition, single people are pestered by relatives about when they’re getting married. This can be a huge stress for some people.
“Whenever the family gets together, they ask if I’m seeing someone,” said Song Soo-ryun, 33, a graduate student. “One of my younger cousins got married and already has a baby, so my uncle teases me, saying I’m already ‘late’ for marriage.”
According to Duo, a professional match-making agency, the number of new subscribers doubled during the month before Chuseok last year. “People tend to register for membership before the holiday starts, and ask counselors for matches as soon and often as possible,” said a spokeswoman. “It seems they’re preparing to say ‘yes’ when their relatives ask if they’re dating.”
For other people, the big stress comes from giving gifts to their bosses.
“Some colleagues told me that I’d better visit a senior professor before Chuseok if I wanted to survive in this profession,” said Min Hyuk-ki, a lecturer at a Seoul university. The “visit” actually means ingratiating himself with the senior professor by giving a holiday present.
The gift tradition originated from sharing after the harvest and thanking people for what they’ve done. But “the intention of giving a gift has changed, so I don’t agree with the idea. The professor could come to us and say have a nice holiday before we visit him, right?” said Mr. Min.
Whether he likes it or not, he has to deal with this reality. Choosing a gift has become another stress.
Park Jin-hwa, 56, echoed that selecting a present is a major stress.
“Every year, I have to struggle to buy Chuseok gifts, because the quality of gifts should reach a certain level but I have a limited budget,” said Ms. Park. “Gift sets advertised in department stores are too expensive. The cheapest one was about 100,000 won ($100),” said Park, who still hasn’t decided what to buy.
by Park Sung-ha