Chuseok is looming around the corner, and as the holidays come nearer and nearer, the faces of my friends are getting longer and longer. To be more precise, my married girlfriends, the ajummas (아줌마, married woman). Mention ‘holidays’ and they involuntarily shudder. But why? Why aren’t holidays anticipated with excitement and joy but with heavy-hearted dread?
Traditional holidays require changes in stance. For the modernized nuclear family, this discrepancy between traditional paternal family values, which are suddenly required on holidays, becomes a huge source of stress. Instead of the holidays being a rest from the daily grind, they become the cause of unhappiness, bringing on headaches, indigestion, backpains and even depression.
This phenomenon has been dubbed Holiday Syndrome (명절증후군). It is so prevalent that it has become a part of the Korean lexicon and is sometimes called Housewife (주부) Holiday Syndrome or Daughter-in-law (며느리) Syndrome , which reveals much about family dynamics.
Being an ajumma is tough. Whether you have a job or are a full-time homemaker, household chores and child-rearing are still the women’s job, and when large family gatherings come around, this becomes more blatant and “normal.” Although Korea has changed over the years, nothing has really changed much when it comes to holiday traditions: namely, the women work while the men lounge about.
Chuseok is the festival to celebrate autumn’s bounty and remember ancestors, so naturally there is a lot of food involved. And making the food is usually left to the women to do, mostly because Korean men rarely venture into the kitchen to cook (unless they cook as a hobby) and expecting them to make complicated holiday foods might be regarded as a stretch. So it’s usually the mother and daughter-in-laws who are stuck in the kitchen all day to endlessly cook and wash dishes.
Korean food requires so much time to make properly; holiday food takes even more. There are so many steps in making even the simplest namul (나물, seasoned vegetables) dishes; the saying goes that you take an armful of raw vegetables to make a handful of namul. Making jeon (전) requires you to sit in front of an open fire to endlessly slice, assemble, dip in batter, fry, and cool for hours and hours. Half-moon rice cakes, songpyeon (송편), have to be carefully crafted, one by one, by hand.
There is so much work to be done yet even the most “modernized” husbands tend to spend most of their time relaxing in the comfort of their parents’ home. Most traditional holidays are spent with the paternal family and wives usually complain their husbands become different people when they’re at their childhood homes. Although some families divide time with the maternal family as well, this is thought as being “very considerate” and is not common.
But to be frank, it isn’t only the women who suffer during holidays. After all, the driver on the long road trip home on a non-moving highway is almost always the dad, and when skirmishes and problems arise among the women of the household (i.e. mother and wife), it is usually the man in the middle who has to smooth things over.
Doctors and experts always point out before every traditional holiday that the best method to avoid Holiday Syndrome is to evenly distribute the household chores, but that is so more easily said than done, so modern families are finding other ways to make the holidays a joyful experience. Many are opting to visit their ancestors’ graves on the weekend before the holidays to take care of the graves and pay respects in a simplified ritual, and when the actual holidays roll around, go on a family trip. (It is sad to think that the only way things can get better is by avoiding the work that goes into preparing the holiday feast altogether, but it is also a reminder of how bad things can get during the holidays.)
Korea is still trying to find a balance between the high-tech lifestyle and traditional values, but the fact is that not much has changed since I was a kid, and that was decades ago. So it is certain that the sighs and distressed expressions of my ajumma friends will deepen as Chuseok approaches.
But I still have to say Happy Chuseok! As for you ajummas, I have my fingers crossed for you. Good luck.