Lunar New Year, or Seollal, like Christmas season in the West, is supposed to be a fun and relaxing family time. But for some -- especially married women in Korea -- the holiday is more regarded as a time of endurance with long hours of domestic labor.
Stemming from the Confucian tradition in which making the home is the sole “virtue” of wives, visiting the home of the husband’s parents is prioritized during the holidays. While at their in-laws, it is mostly the women’s’ responsibility to cook the feasts for the husbands’ family. Preparing food for jesa -- traditional rituals for ancestors -- is also solely the duty of women. The tradition is based on the notion that when a woman marries a man, she joins the man‘s family, and as the traditional role of women as homemakers, she is responsible to care for all the family members.
The patriarchal culture that had persisted for centuries and been passively accepted by their mothers seem more bizarre to younger generations, particularly as the number of women becoming economically active increases.
“I have watched my mother work like a maid while at my paternal grandparents’ house whenever there were family gatherings, especially during holidays, and I thought little of it. Now as I’ve become a daughter-in-law myself, I find it extremely unfair,” said Shin Min-jeong, 34, a working mother of one.
“Funnily enough, because I have grown watching my mother being treated as such, I have this innate sense of responsibility of having to behave the same.”
Kim So-hae, 42, says while she feels there are no reasonable grounds for women to be stuck in the kitchen, she contradicts herself by feeling guilty whenever her mother-in-law tells her to relax.
“I know I am not ‘obligated’ to work in the kitchen, but somehow I feel like I am breaking a serious rule by sitting on the sofa while my mother-in-law cooks.”
Cho and Kim are only a couple of the Korean wives stuck in such a dilemma, which can lead to immense stress.
According to a survey by Incruit, a local job search site, more than 60 percent of housewives felt stressed when visiting in-laws, three times higher than when visiting their own parents. Some 31.7 percent said the stress stemmed from cooking and cleaning.
Another study by Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service suggested that the percentage of women in their 30s and 40s suffering from bladder infections surged around 20 percent during holidays. The state-run agency that reviews medical fees noted that housewives become vulnerable to the disease as the level of immunity drops under mental stress and long hours of labor during the holidays.
“In the past, being a good wife meant a married woman who takes care of her household and her parents-in-law,” said Kwak Geum-joo, a psychology professor at Seoul National University.
“But the standard of a good wife has changed (for the worse) nowadays. They also have to be superwomen that excel in both work and at home. That’s why they face a great deal of stress,” Kwak said.
One example is the difficulty that many married women face in deciding when it is time to leave the in-laws after the New Year’s celebration is over -- without the parents’ permission.
While being a loyal daughter-in-law has long been a virtue of the Korean woman, more have also become vocal in asking questions, such as “why should we,” especially in the cultural fields.
Local documentary film “Myeoneuri: My Son’s Crazy Wife” garnered unexpected attention recently for its depiction of the director’s own family in a brutal confrontation between his wife and mother, without filtering a word.
Introducing his wife, Jin-young, as “a strange woman,” the action revolves around the relationships among his revolutionary wife, his angry mother and of himself, in a double bind.
Jin-young goes against her mother-in-law, who constantly intervenes in her life and even tells her what underwear brand her son should wear. After a big fight, Jin-young stops visiting the in-laws, even for Chuseok, the major fall harvest holiday.
“I didn’t go to my in-laws during the holiday. Instead, I had the perfect holiday,” she says with a big smile on her face in an interview in the movie.
Webtoon “Myeoneul-agi” also explores the reality of being a wife and a daughter-in-law, and the broken fantasy of married life.
Main character Sarin ties the knot with the man she loves. But after some time, she questions why she has become a woman who constantly feels the need to satisfy her in-laws, while her position with the in-laws remains at its lowest.
Both the film and webtoon have developed bonds of sympathy among many young Korean women, encouraging them to raise their voices.
But in reality, the daughter-in-law raising her voice is still seen as a taboo, and women fear being considered a failed wife.
“I don’t want to pick a fight with my husband and face the endless criticism from the in-laws,” said Kim Soo-hyun, a mother with a 6-year-old daughter.
“But I don‘t want to see my daughter go through this either, facing in-law‘s expectations to be a docile daughter-in-law like I do when she grows up. I hope one day that society starts to accept what gender equality means in the family. I guess that such a time hasn’t arrived yet.”
Without an extreme revelation that truly portrays the cruelty of gender inequality in the family, professor Kwak said it would be difficult to imagine an immediate change.
“There should be a drastic movement, something like #MeToo. Without that, (the social definition of a good wife) will remain the same,” she said.
By Cho Chung-un