Chuseok rice cakes dipped in boiling resentmentSome of my most vivid memories about elementary school in Korea are of cooking with my female classmates in home economics class. We learned to prepare all sorts of delectable dishes, but it was also a potent education in gender roles for my generation. While we 9-year old girls were sweating through our shirts from boiling stews in the hot summer, the boys were outside doing “military” drills in the school playground.
The highlight of the autumn semester was Chuseok, when the girls were asked to fix tea and songpyeon, a type of rice cake, which we then served the boys when they came back in from their training. The girls had to eat the ugly pieces leftover from the boys' plates.
As a little girl, the whole ritual of cooking up yummy foods and serving them to boys wasn't at all that unpleasant. Now, I am almost thankful for the experience. At the least, it provided a clear warning sign of what was coming 20 years later, when I would have to listen to my married friends complaining about the monstrous kitchen work they face during Chuseok.
Those same girls who I studied with in home economics have grown up to be power elites in Korean society ― something they could have never expected. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Every year they still have to return to the kitchen to do the work their teachers gave them 20 years ago.
It’s what society expects, after all.
Every holiday, I hear the sour voices of people criticizing working wives for serving store-bought food during Chuseok ― it’s much better when everything is homemade.
The pressure of these expectations and the resulting overwork generates resentment. It’s is enough to make our exhausted mothers and married friends turn into hard-boiled feminists. Despite the constant chatter about how times have changed, the truth is written on their exhausted faces.
Every Chuseok, we are tirelessly reminded by T.V. programs and elderly people of the importance of family values. But in a society with the world’s third highest divorce rate, we still don’t confront the facts about the Korean family or the people who actually make the sacrifices. We’re taught that holidays are meant to be celebrated, not to be complained about. During the long weekend the women keep quiet and the ritual continues smoothly ― the meals are made, the gifts exchanged and the prying questions from relatives are answered.
But the unhappiness manifests itself in other ways. The birth rate is declining and women are increasingly viewing single life as a viable option. It seems a lot better than spending Chuseok cooking for a family of 15.
Some think that falling birthrates will create a crisis as the workforce shrinks. But for others, it would be better to live in a quietly aging society than to see our children compete like dogs. Most of all, maintaining family values should not mean following the model of our old home economics classes.
How to Cook
Songpyeon (rice cakes)
Ingredients (1 serving): 2 cups of sweet rice, 2 cups of sesame seeds, 1/2 cup of sugar, 2 cups of mung beans, a little bit of salt and sesame oil.
1. Wash the rice thoroughly. Soak in cold water for a few hours. Pour them in a bowl to crush finely.
2. Peel mung beans. Steam in a pot. When they cool, crush them. Mix them with salt and sugar.
3. Wash the sesame seeds. On low heat, gently pan-fry with a pinch of salt and sugar. Let them cool.
4. Add hot water to crushed rice.
5. When making dough, add a small amount of mung beans as stuffing. Do the same with the sesame seeds.
6. Layer pine leaves in steamer. Place songpyeon on top. Steam for about half an hour. Coat with sesame oil and serve.
by Park Soo-mee