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'Chuseok stress' returns as families gather again

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A ritual table with food laid out as a mark of respect to family ancestors. Korea Times file
A ritual table with food laid out as a mark of respect to family ancestors. Korea Times file

Confucian group promotes simplified Chuseok food preparation ritual but whether it will help ease seasonal anxiety for daughters-in-law remains to be seen

By Lee Yeon-woo

Whenever Chuseok or Lunar New Year holidays are approaching, online communities known as "mom cafes," which serve as communication platforms for women with school-aged children, are flooded with comments full of outrage and fury triggered by the holiday.

For married women, Chuseok is not a break from family chores. They are busier than ever with the added responsibility of preparing food for their in-laws throughout the holidays.

Worrying about the holidays that continue over a period of four or five days, depending on the calendar year, some members share their traumatic Chuseok experiences. Many of them are stressed out because of their memories of being used in a fashion they describe as "slave labor" and of getting into disputes with their in-laws.

"I am the youngest daughter-in-law of my husband's parents. So, during Chuseok, I had to wash dishes for two hours. My work was endless because there are many people," one wrote in one online group, complaining about the work she had been expected to do throughout the holiday period. Another complained about unfair treatment between daughters-in-law and daughters. "My sister-in-law was at her parents' home," a woman in her 30s wrote. "She asked my husband and me why we were going to leave early. She knew we were going to visit my parents but kept pushing us to stay longer there. She drove me crazy."

The online community had been relatively calm for the last two years since the start of the pandemic, because families were discouraged from gathering for the holidays.

However, this year, women have been raising their voices again about the discriminative practices, as social distancing has been eased and Chuseok family gatherings face no restrictions.

Married women become stressed during the holidays for various reasons. The seemingly endless food preparation and dishwashing work are some of the sources of their complaints. Daughters-in-law are under pressure to undertake such tasks, a product of Korean culture, causing some to compare themselves to slaves.

A 27-year-old office worker who asked to be identified only by her surname Kim said although she is single, she is all too familiar with the stress married women go through during the holidays because of her own family experiences. She said she grew up seeing her mother stressed out whenever Chuseok or Lunar New Year approached.

Food preparation was one of the sources of her mother's growing stress during the holidays.

"I get the point of paying respect to your ancestors and sharing family values at Chuseok," she told The Korea Times. "But we live in 2022. We don't have to set up a table to remember our ancestors, especially when it's distressing for certain family members. Family values can be shared in restaurants, too, rather than at home."

Another single woman, Lee Jae-rin, said she fully understands the emotional rollercoaster many married women experience before, during and even after the holiday periods.

"I am not going to cook for the holidays even if I get married in the future," the 29-year-old said. "I saw my mother cooking all day and I think that's nonsense. Holidays are for taking it easy, not for working. It would be best if there's no ritual at all but I am willing to pay for the food if my husband's family insists on keeping it going."

Choi Young-gap, the head of the Sungkyunkwan Commission for Correcting Rituals, explains how to set up a simplified ritual table during a press conference held in Seoul, Monday. Newsis
Choi Young-gap, the head of the Sungkyunkwan Commission for Correcting Rituals, explains how to set up a simplified ritual table during a press conference held in Seoul, Monday. Newsis

In response to the holiday blues among married women due to excessive food preparation, a group dedicated to preserving the traditions of Confucian culture and rituals unveiled a set of guidelines for a streamlined Chuseok table.

The Sungkyunkwan Commission for Correcting Rituals announced new standards for setting up ritual tables, Monday. The commission aims to improve complex, impractical traditions and disseminate the changes to the public.

"As a core institution in Korean Confucianism, we knew the current criticisms were based on ornate rituals. We admit we had failed to change them in the name of tradition," Choi Young-gap, the head of the commission, said at the press conference held in Seoul, Monday. "I know it's late, but we will continue to research and clarify the misaligned Confucian rituals from now on."

So far, certain rules have been followed for setting up ritual tables in the name of tradition. Fruit and a traditional sweet snack called "han-gwa" are located at the front of the table, while several types of boiled and seasoned vegetables called "namul" are in the second row, several types of soup are in the third row, "jeon" and grilled fish are in the fourth row and a bowl of rice and soup are in the back. Colors should be considered too. For example, red foods and white foods are placed on opposite sides.

A survey conducted of 1,000 people by the commission found that four out of every 10 Koreans believe the current ritual should "simplify" the process for its improvement and almost half of the public said five to ten food types is the most appropriate amount to prepare.

To reflect the changing perceptions, the commission suggested preparing just grilled meat or fish, kimchi, fruit, liquor and songpyeon, a traditional rice cake enjoyed at Chuseok. A fried food ― such as jeon ― is not necessary. "These are not obligations and should be decided by family members."

Under the new standard, wine and coffee can be served instead of traditional liquors if the table is prepared from the heart and with respect to one's ancestors. Many other foods that the deceased enjoyed during their lifetime are appropriate to be served too.

"Remembering your ancestors doesn't lie in the variety of foods. We hope for Chuseok to become a holiday to reflect and think about your family and its roots, not a holiday to be spent cooking jeon," the commission said.

Some single women are welcoming the decision. "My family is enjoying the simplified ritual nowadays and we are very satisfied. I strongly believe the rituals should be changed over time and enjoyed in the right form for each family," a 32-year-old single woman surnamed Yang, living in Busan, said.

Lee Yeon-woo

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