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[Kim Hoo-ran] Be grateful this Chuseok

As families around the country prepare to hold big reunions over the Chuseok holidays next weekend, grumblings can already be heard here and there over how the holidays have become so stressful for everyone.

What should be a happy occasion when extended families who live far apart gather around a large feast and take delight in catching up with one another has somehow become a thankless chore.

It is no longer just the daughters-in-law griping about slaving away in the kitchen for days. It is not just the impossibly heavy highway traffic that has you stuck on the road for more than eight hours. Those frustrations, we have come to accept with resignation.

The joy has been sucked out of the family gatherings because what was once a day of thanksgiving and celebration has become a day to fulfil one’s filial duties, bearing an increasingly heavy financial burden.

This year, an average family can expect to fork out 200,000 won ($180) to prepare the requisite food for the altar table. Then there is that extended family to feed, often for several meals, which will cost far more than what it costs to set up the altar table. Then there are the gifts for the family, which appear to get more extravagant and expensive each year. A recent survey showed that an average person plans on spending 180,000 won on gifts this year. Bear in mind, however, that this does not include spending money one is expected to hand out to parents, nieces and nephews.

In fact, the financial burden of Chuseok appears to be a major stress factor as the economy has slowed down. Of course, one could consciously choose to spend within one’s means – less lavish meals, less elaborate gifts, a little less spending money. However, in a society where keeping up with the Joneses is a major preoccupation, this is easier said than done. You don’t want your mother to be embarrassed and resentful when her friend is bragging about an overseas tour package that her son gave her as a Chuseok present.

Often, the stress of having to field all-too-personal questions from distant relatives -- who in all honesty probably couldn’t care less -- is so foreboding that you wish you could skip the holidays altogether.

Inquisitive older relatives pester you with questions that they have no business asking in the first place and to which you often do not have an answer. Were these people, whom you see once or twice a year at best, ever really interested in what goes in your life? Why do they ask the same questions that they peppered you with during the Lunar New Year holidays?

At a time when many young people are forced to delay marriage plans, mostly because of the prohibitive costs of weddings and housing, it is just cruel to off-handedly ask, “Hey, when are you getting married? Are you seriously dating anyone yet?” If they could only see your bleeding heart.

If you are married, nosy elderly women will invariably ask, “So, when are you having kids? Time will soon run out!” Don’t we all know that the biological clock is quietly ticking away! Well, do they really want to hear that you are delaying having kids because you need the double income and you haven’t figured out who will take care of that bundle of joy when it does come?

“Have you found a job yet?” asked with great concern, whether feigned or not, can stab at a college graduate who has been moving from one dead-end internship to another for the last two years. With the soaring unemployment rate among young people making headlines every day, the all-knowing aunt should have really held her tongue on this question.

It seems that if families just paused to think before asking these once innocent questions that today can hurt like a dagger, everyone may be able to enjoy the big family reunion in a way that is true to its spirit. If we can stop striving to keep up with the Joneses and instead be truly grateful for what we do have here and now, then perhaps we can better appreciate Chuseok as a day of giving thanks for a bountiful harvest.

And if everyone, before savoring their Chuseok feast, could please say thank you to the countless daughters-in-law around the country who toiled away for hours and days in the kitchen, we would really appreciate it. 

By Kim Hoo-ran

Kim Hoo-ran is an editorial writer at The Korea Herald. She can be reached at