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COVID-19 Hampered South Korea's Chuseok Holiday — But Daughters-In-Law Got A Break

The mid-autumn harvest festival of Chuseok is one of South Korea's biggest holidays. Families typically return to their hometowns to perform ancestral rites, preparing elaborate feasts and visiting and tidying their ancestors' burial grounds.

It is a holiday deeply rooted in tradition. On the morning of Chuseok, children wear traditional bright, flowing silk hanbokgarments and bow to their elders. Dishes of rice cakes, fruits, vegetables, fish and liquor are all laid across a table as offerings to the ancestors.

For many married women, though, the tradition means not getting much of a holiday at all. They are expected to travel to their in-laws' celebrations — and spend the entire holiday cleaning and cooking. It's far from a relaxing experience, and is believed by some experts to be a factor in post-holiday spikes in divorce.

But this year's Chuseok holiday, which fell on Oct. 1 and was celebrated from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, marked a change from the past. Due to the coronavirus, the government discouraged travel and many families stayed put.

Large banners were hung in the provinces outside Seoul. "Son, daughter, daughter-in-law! You don't have to come home this Chuseok," a sign in the southwestern South Jeolla province said.

This was the first Chuseok when many married women had an opportunity to rest at home with their immediate families.

"From a daughter-in-law's perspective, it's difficult to understand why we have to do so much hard work when it's not even for our own ancestors," says Jang Saera, 34, a product development manager at an interior design company. "While the women are busy in the kitchen, the men just sit in the living room and watch TV."

She spent this Chuseok with her husband and 4-year-old daughter in Gunpo, Gyeonggi Province. Normally, they would have all gone to Incheon, outside Seoul, to be with her in-laws. This time, her family did not perform ancestral rites.

The Seoul train station was unusually empty last Tuesday, a day before the Chuseok holiday began. South Korea's Korail train operator only sold window seats to enforce social distancing this year.
/ Jun Michael Park for NPR
The Seoul train station was unusually empty last Tuesday, a day before the Chuseok holiday began. South Korea's Korail train operator only sold window seats to enforce social distancing this year.

Despite more liberal attitudes about gender equality among younger generations, South Korea remains a deeply patriarchal, Confucian society. The Confucian social structure dictates that upon marriage, a woman belongs to her husband's family. Wives are thus expected to spend Chuseok with their in-laws.

Even before this year, there were growing calls from women for a more gender-equal celebration of Chuseok. But deeply held expectations about a daughter-in-law's role and responsibility for household chores have been a powerful obstacle.

Some South Koreans called on the government to cancel the long Chuseok weekend this year, due to fears of a COVID-19 resurgence. As of Tuesday, South Korea had 24,239 confirmed cases and 422 deaths, after a upsurge of cases last month. Many women pointed out that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to refuse pressure from their in-laws for a family gathering. Only an official cancellation would help.

Soldiers stand guard at the Memorial Gate in the Seoul National Cemetery the day before the Chuseok holiday last week. The cemetery is only allowing a limited number of visitors due to COVID-19.
/ Jun Michael Park for NPR
Soldiers stand guard at the Memorial Gate in the Seoul National Cemetery the day before the Chuseok holiday last week. The cemetery is only allowing a limited number of visitors due to COVID-19.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Seoul National Cemetery is virtually empty. The cemetery is only allowing a limited number of visitors who make reservations online, and was closed during the Chuseok holidays.
/ Jun Michael Park for NPR
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Seoul National Cemetery is virtually empty. The cemetery is only allowing a limited number of visitors who make reservations online, and was closed during the Chuseok holidays.

A petition was uploaded onto the president's website citing such concerns and difficulties. "During times like this, I regret having married. Do you know what it feels like, being a daughter-in-law, unable to do what I wish? It's no different from being a puppet," the anonymous petitioner wrote. The petition garnered 18,164 signatures in a month before it was closed, far short of the 200,000 signatures needed for an official response from the president's office.

"The role of a daughter-in-law is always burdensome. Most daughters-in-law still aren't able to say what they wish, and it doesn't seem like the older generation can easily change its conceptions," says Jang. "Whenever I go visit my in-laws, I know I have to work."

Lee Hyang Shin, 50, who works at a hospital and lives with her husband of 18 years and their two children in Iksan, gathered this year with some nearby family members, fewer than in the past, for a simple celebration. "We got our food from a restaurant and ended up buying jeonfrom a market instead of preparing it at home," she says. Jeon —one of the hallmark dishes of Chuseok, composed of lightly fried sliced vegetables, meat and fish — is notoriously labor-intensive to prepare.

Before the holiday, shoppers buy groceries at Gyeongdong Market in eastern Seoul for the preparation of ritual foods for Chuseok.
/ Jun Michael Park for NPR
Before the holiday, shoppers buy groceries at Gyeongdong Market in eastern Seoul for the preparation of ritual foods for Chuseok.

Surveys have shown that some South Korean men seem aware of and sympathetic about the stress facing their wives during the Chuseok holiday. In a survey conducted in 2018 by the Seoul Foundation of Women and Family, 43.5% of male respondents said they wanted to help female family members prepare the food.

And research supported a decade ago by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family found that of 800 male respondents, 90% said they were willing to help their wives prepare food — but "feel uneasy about working in the kitchen while their parents are watching," according to the Korea Herald.

"As a daughter-in-law, I can't imagine sitting in the living room, watching TV, while my mother-in-law is in the kitchen. But the opposite of this isn't strange at all. My husband doesn't help out his mother-in-law — my mother — when we're visiting my parents," says Jang.

Visitors crowd the Gyeongdong Market in eastern Seoul on Sept. 29, a day before the start of the Chuseok holiday.
/ Jun Michael Park for NPR
Visitors crowd the Gyeongdong Market in eastern Seoul on Sept. 29, a day before the start of the Chuseok holiday.

For a Chuseok more considerate of women, she and Lee suggest, perhaps some of its key festivities — the ancestor memorial rites and extended family feasts — need to be simplified. Jang even suggests eliminating the process of ancestral rites altogether.

"Of course it's important to honor your ancestors," she says. But preparing for it "puts too much stress upon women. If it can't be eliminated entirely, it at least needs to change to a more simplified process."

Before she got married, "Eating delicious food, being together with family and helping my mother out in the kitchen with various dishes was all really fun. But now that I've become a daughter-in-law, my view of it has changed," she says.

"What is a daughter-in-law?" she adds. "It's someone that is family, but not actually family."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Visitors walk across a graveyard at the Seoul National Cemetery last week.
/ Jun Michael Park for NPR
Visitors walk across a graveyard at the Seoul National Cemetery last week.