My dear friend P asked me to blog about my first Chuseok as a wife, so this one’s for her.
Despite the worried looks from older Korean managers, and the whispered questions dripping with concerned from coworkers, Chuseok really wasn’t that bad as a wife. This was my second Chuseok with the family, and the fifth major family event I’ve attended, but of course the first one in an ‘official’ capacity. All the other times I’ve been with them, they’ve insisted that I sit down with the men and not help with the cooking/cleaning because I wasn’t yet a wife (or…’not a REAL wife’ until all the weddings were finished). Last Chuseok was the first major event, and with the exception of the language, type of food served, and the ever present Chuseok specials blaring from the tv, I didn’t find it that different in terms of work or spirit from my Canadian Thanksgiving/Christmas/Easter experiences. If you ever help out mum with the turkey or the dessert, it’s not such a far stretch to be making songpyeon or jeon.
But I do realize that my experience as a wife of a Korean is very different from other people, in part because there are actually several factors which can make Chuseok=hell for wives which means that the experience can differ radically between families, and in part because I am a foreigner…and my family seriously has no idea what to do with me. I’ve offered to cook – to take cooking lessons from my mother-in-law or brother-in-law’s wife so I can learn to do it ‘right’ – but I’ve been told that’s not necessary. Partly I think it’s because my brother-in-law married 8 years ago, so his wife’s role is clearly defined and she and our mother-in-law have been doing these events for years together. But I also think that they don’t think I’m actually able to do it. Something about the confluence of the belief that Western women are homemaker-deficient and the idea that Korean food/culture etc is ‘too difficult’ for ‘foreigners’ to gasp. But, actually, those ideas work in my favour, so I’ll let them slide for now. So this time, my duties were 1) make a non-Korean dessert for everyone to share (this is a great one if you want to impress your inlaws who don’t like cake that is very sweet..all the female relatives had 2 helpings pre-lunch, and my eldest niece came back for fourths) 2) show up 3) survive through 3 meals and a Catholic church services over a 10 hour period. That was really a marathon and test of my ability to struggle through all-Korean, all the time conversations, but considering the work many Korean women do – and the work my mother puts into a Thanksgiving dinner, I think that’s pretty damn good!
But apart from these reasons for my laid back Chuseok, there are several other factors which led to my situation this year and conversely, contribute to the burden many women face.
1) Our family lives nearby. I suppose this could = hell for some people who have to deal with regular inlaw intrusions, but in our case it works out well. We see Mr. Lee’s family about once a month for a big event, but then after a couple of hours, we get to go home and sleep in our own bed and live in our own space. If you have to travel half way across the country (a small country that becomes completely deadlocked during holidays), and stay for 2, 3, 4, 5 days in a small house with a gaggle of Korean family members (sleeping on the floor – getting drunk together, doing mass-family outings together) – I think this could really get on some people’s nerves. But we can see the family more often (thus shorter periods), and that really helps in reducing stress and workload.
2) A small family. Of course my family doesn’t live here…which might not matter if I were in a traditional Korean family. In the past, when a woman married, she literally left her family and was responsible only to her new family. She didn’t go to visit her natal family during holidays which probably also led to the stress of doing everything for husband’s kin without being able to see their loved ones. Of course, this is changing, but it also means that while many women do visit their family members, they also have more responsibilities heaped onto them by both families. In our case, we have the added fact that Mr. Lee’s entire paternal extended family immigrated en masse to the US decades ago (his father is the only one who refused to go), and two of his mother’s four sisters live abroad (LA and Australia). Therefore, we only have two gatherings – parents + siblings, and reduced extended maternal family (grandparents, uncle, 2 aunts and their families). This really reduces travel time/stress/and amount of people we have to greet.
3) North Korea. Mr. Lee’s parents are both from North Korea – they fled during the Chinese invasion during the Korean War (not recent defectors!) There is that sad fact that they can never go back to their home town and we can’t visit our ancestor’s tombs located there (we don’t even discuss it because of this sense of loss) – but it also means that we don’t need to join the traffic jams to grave areas.
4) Catholics. The big big big reason why traditional holidays pose such a burden to Korean women is because of the ancestral memorial rites. Traditionally, the women cook and cook and cook for these rituals while the men relax or gamble…and then the women are barred from participating in the rites. I have had female students who are now allowed to join the rituals, and I’ve had the odd male student who helps his mum with the cooking – but that’s still the exception to the rule. But many Catholics and Protestants don’t do the rituals (believing that making prostrations to ancestors is an affront to the 1st Commandment, or that these rites are at least in some conflict with Christian beliefs). Therefore, our family goes to a special Mass where people sprinkle a small amount of incense, bow at the waist, and deposit some money with a loved one’s name on it in a basket. Not too difficult. And I get to practice my Korean singing skills.
5) ‘We’re not that yangban.’ That’s a quote from Mr. Lee himself. Yangban refers to the elite class in the Confucian heiarchy. While Korean culture doesn’t really follow this social structure anymore (money is a much stronger marker now), it now often refers to people, families, or institutions with a strong sense of Joseon (Lee) Dynasty values and ethics. Of course my family has a more rigid notion of authority than my Canadian family. And of course males are considered more authoritative in the Korean family (but not Mr. Lee and my family!), but they are much more relaxed about such things than some, and this means that some of the ‘manners,’ ways of speaking, and ways of doing things are also more relaxed.
6) My father-in-law can be authoritarian. Times are a chang’n, and my mother-in-law has a great deal more of force than in Mr. Lee’s childhood. However, the father’s opinion still trumps all when there is a direct order, and when I went to clear the table, help with the washing up, my father-in-law gave me a very direct order to sit beside him and watch tv (and then he literally pulled me down). Then he ordered Mr. Lee to clear the dishes instead. This occurred with much laughter and joking. But make NO mistake. My father-in-law in not a feminist and does not harbour equal gender role beliefs. However, for some reason – maybe because I’m a foreigner – maybe because he doesn’t know what to do with me – but most likely because he wants to practice his English and get me to practice my Korean – he told me over and over again to sit down. I know my mother-in-law does not entirely feel the same way (she has told me over and over again that I must cook for Mr. Lee and that he must NOT do any cooking), but my father-in-law’s opinion must be followed. And so I sat and handed dishes to Mr. Lee.
7) Mr. Lee is the youngest child. How many times have I been told by people not to marry the oldest son? This is another place where we benefit from the Confucian hierarchy. From a cultural standpoint, we are much less responsible for his parents, and I, as the youngest daughter-in-law do not have as many duties. Certainly if you have horrible in-laws and horrible older sister-in-laws, life can be hell if they make many demands and give many orders. But as I’ve said before, my brother-in-law’s wife is a freaking saint – and has an extraordinarily sweet personality. She takes on everything and tries to make life easier for everyone but herself. And as I say to myself every single day – I have a lot to learn from her…
So those are the factors which I think contributed to a less stressful and more enjoyable Chuseok holiday. And I would imagine that depending on the individual circumstances of each woman and each family that their experiences very much depend on these same factors. If she is from a very yangban-esq family in a rural area far from Seoul – and a family which diligently follows the ancestor memorial rituals – she will probably have a much harder time than a woman who has a smaller, more ‘modern’ Protestant city who lives nearby.
I do worry about one thing though – that despite my father-in-law’s insistence that I ‘be with the men,’ that deep down my mother-in-law thinks that I am lazy or incompetent. In my perfect world, Mr. Lee and I would both help with preparation and clean up with the female relatives. I actually would really like to help out more because it would give me something tangible to do in a sea of complicated Korean conversations. One of my coworkers – a very very tall Kiwi who is married to a Korean – has taken to donning an apron and cooking all the major family meals because he feels more useful (and can avoid soju laced gambling losses).
But at the same time, I realize that my brother-in-law’s wife has taken 8 years to get into her role, and that it will probably take a bit longer for the whole family to fit me in. So I need to be patient and wait for that role to slowly evolve. For now at least, I will bake my non-Korean desserts and try to amuse my father-in-laws as my contributions to the Chuseok fun.
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