It’s almost Chuseok! Although it is the biggest holiday in the second half of the year, a traditional holiday which is all about family, health, respect, love, and giving thanks for the bounty of good life, the holiday comes with its fair amount of dire stress. I already wrote about holiday stress from the perspective of an ajumma in a previous post, but it’s obvious stress isn’t only limited to the ajummas.
Large family gatherings inevitably mean meeting and catching up with relatives whom you haven’t seen in a while, and these occasions may not always be that pleasant. As the saying goes, “The wind never dies in a tree with many branches”, and there will always be plenty of sharp wind blowing straight in your face and piercing your soul.
There are things Koreans hate to hear from family and relatives during the holidays. Polls and surveys are held regularly by various organizations about this subject, but if you’re Korean, you really don’t need an official list to be aware of this. It’s just a natural part of Korean life we have to deal with.
So what don’t we want to hear? In no particular order:
Cheolsu-ya! No, Myeongsu-ya! Wait, are you Minsu? What’s your name again?
The more the merrier, right? It’s less common these days with the nuclear family, but in large families with many uncles and aunts and cousins and nieces and nephews and grandchildren who all have similar names due to the familial naming tradition, you will probably be called by a variety of names. Especially for kids who only see their elderly relatives about once or twice a year, their growth spurt as they get older will confuse the adults even more. And it’s most likely they’ll forget and ask about a million times again.
Personally, though, despite of this always showing up in the results of these surveys, I honestly think that if an elderly relative can’t remember your name it probably means you haven’t been to see them enough, and if you don’t care enough to go see them that often, you shouldn’t be offended when this happens.
The upgraded ultra-annoying version: Whose kid were you?
Do you get good grades? Study. You must study hard. Study hard, study hard, study hard , study hard ! You know you must study hard, don’t you?
The phrase that Koreans hear the most when growing up? This would be it. No contest. Absolutely no contest. Koreans value good education above everything. Getting good grades in school is of utmost importance, so if you’re a student and you find yourself at a family gathering, everyone who is no longer a student will be telling you this. Although we were extremely aggravated listening to this over and over while growing up, it seems the moment we leave school we completely forget about the aggravation we suffered and just repeat it to the generations after us and continue this vicious circle. What can we do? It’s in our blood.
The upgraded question-of-terror version: How do you rank in class/ the whole school?
What university did you get into? Your cousin got into that Prestigious University!
Ah. The most dreaded question from the pre-college crowd. A natural continuum from the “study hard” mantra. Furthermore, you know for sure that there is bound to be a cousin, son/daughter of family friends, or relatives you’ve never heard of till now, who have gotten into a much, much, better university than you. If you’re in university already, the question would be, “What university are you attending?” and if you’re not in university (but of that age), it’d be, “Why aren’t you in university?” which would lead immediately back to the “study hard” mantra once again. Oh, and yes, it is always agonizing when the people asking have never heard of your university; the explaining you have to do is utterly mentally draining.
The upgraded super-guilt-inducing version: So are you getting a scholarship or are you bleeding your parents dry?
Did you get a job yet? Your cousin got into that Big Name Company!
That annoying, smug, cousin. Ruining it for everybody again. You didn’t think it would be over with university, did you? If you’re Korean, of course not. You know better than that.
God forbid you don’t get work immediately after graduation. Even for men who choose to complete their mandatory military service after university, the leeway of time allowed to goof off seems to end at three months, maximum. Since most young Koreans live at home until they get married, the sight of an unemployed child lounging at home is not that pleasing to the parents and their worries just cascade over to the other relatives as well. You’re going to be asked this, no matter what.
Of course, even if you are employed, you’re going to get compared anyway. As it was for the university, prepare yourself for a very tiring and lengthy explanation of your company/workplace if it doesn’t happen to be one of those humongous companies everyone has heard of.
The upgraded head-on-desk version: You still don’t have a job? Stop being picky! Just go into any company that will have you!
Wait, how old are you now?
You knew it was coming, right? The age question. This is especially annoying for the no-longer-a-student age group. Because in Korea, you just have to do certain things at a certain age, or you’re just plain weird, so “age check” happens at every occasion. Once the age has been established, then it is time to match your accomplishments to those of someone who is the same age but way superior to you in every single way. This is like the foundation question of the rehash that will be done. Oh, and there really is no right answer. You’re either going to be too young or too old, so just deal with it.
The upgraded so-what-the-heck-do-you-want-me-to-do version: You used to be so cute/pretty/handsome when you were younger!
When are you going to get married?
Aaaaaaaand here it is. After all the probing jabs, the KO punch. You usually don’t prepare for university too long or stay jobless for too long, but you literally can go for years and years being unmarried, so this question gets quite grating from major overuse. Either they think that you’re being overly picky, turning away potential suitors who are falling all over you; or that you’re being very uncouth and “not taking care of yourself” and chasing away potential suitors just by being yourself. It’s another no-win situation. It’s totally your fault you’re not married, and you know you must get married and have a family of your own, or it’s a great fail of filial piety and a failure of parenting skills on your parents’ part. I’m not being facetious.
(If you’re married, the next question would be, “When are you having kids?”, but apparently this question isn’t as annoying as the marriage one, because it never shows up in the surveys.)
The upgraded makes-you-feel-like-a-total-loser version: Do you even have a girl/boy friend?
Lose some weight!
Koreans aren’t shy about making comments about personal appearance. You’d hear them from friends, colleagues, and even random strangers *cough* ajummas *cough* so it’s not surprising you’d hear a lot from family. After analyzing your rapid ageing process and the deterioration of your facial beauty, the next comment would inevitably be about your body. Especially if you’re still single. This would be trotted out as one of the major reasons why you’re unmarried.
The opposite case applies, too. For example, “You’re a skeleton! Gain some weight!”
The upgraded brutal version: Stop eating so much!
Stay for another night!
What all daughter-in-laws don’t want to hear. Chuseok, like Seollal (Lunar New Year) is a long holiday of several days. Since traditional ancestral rites are held on the father’s side of the family, you’d usually head to your paternal grandparents for the holidays. However, nowadays many families tend to spend some time at the dad’s side and then the mom’s side for a fair share, unless the families live too far apart. However, things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes your paternal grandparents would insist you stay another night, cutting into the time you can spend at your maternal grandparents’ house. If you’re a daughter-in-law, you won’t have much time to spend with your parents, siblings, and their families. And you really wouldn’t be able to say no, unless there is an emergency situation going on.
The upgraded my-husband-is-so-clueless version: Why don’t we just stay here until the holidays end?
So there you are. Obviously, there are many, many, great and happy things about the holidays. too. (Many, many bloggers wrote/will write about those.) This list is kind of a reminder to Koreans to be careful of what to say during the holidays (and how), and for non-Koreans, a glimpse into Korean family dynamics.
In the end, all are said with good intentions. It just might be an awkward attempt to make conversation with relatives you haven’t seen in a long time, and since most of these are said by elders to the young, most are likely said from concern and love. (Or that is what I’d like to believe. The cynical me thinks it’s just out of habit and lack of something other to say which has significance, but that’s just me.)
All in all, have a Happy Chuseok, everyone!