A Korean Family Chuseok

Junkyu’s friends come over a lot. When I first started dating him, he would let me meet everyone over Skype and it made me feel really included, albeit a bit awkward. Then, when I would visit Korea, we would hang out with his friends and family, and it made me feel even more part of his world, not like a random stranger.

In Korean culture, I’ve often wondered how couples decide to get married, since there isn’t a very big “proposal/engagement” culture here (but it’s catching on with the younger generation, I think) and recently I met a married couple (Korean woman, European man) who explained to me that once someone meets their partner’s parents, the parents might suggest that they get married.

In that regard, I’m glad I’ve always been considered marriage material, but now that we have our own place, things are getting more complicated. Since we have a new house, people want to come over and see it. My fiancé’s friends also want to come over to meet me, apparently. We’ve also had people he works with come over, and they’ve had us over as well. However, I’m not very good in stressful situations, and this whole move to Korea has been a bit overwhelming.

My job keeps me busy and tired, so when I get home I just want to relax, but when his friends come over, I’m already exhausted, so I have no energy left for them. If his friends see that I’m tired, they start to feel bad that they came over to our place, but I don’t seem up for hours and hours of hang out time. His family, however, was even more stressful to deal with. Mainly because of Chuseok.

Chuseok is Korean Thanksgiving, a time to remember the loved ones who have passed on and a time to come together with family and eat lots of food. Junkyu’s father passed away when he was very young, so we met up with his mom and his aunts, uncles, and cousins to go tomb sweeping. He told me it would be a trek up a mountain and warned me that it would be like entering an Indiana Jones movie.

The view from the foot of the mountains

We climbed a mountain that had basically no path, and we went around to different family plots to clean up the area and pay our respects. It was a great cultural experience for me, because they taught me what to do and I felt like I bonded with the group of 14 who climbed to the top. Afterwards, we ate lots of food together and promised his uncles we would travel down to Ulsan to see them. It’s tradition to visit one’s ancestral home, but we already live in the city he grew up in.

Me looking like a Korean ahjumma

For Chuseok, I was determined to wear hanbok with him. Hanbok are traditional Korean clothes that are usually only worn at weddings or other special events. However, we were instructed to wear hanbok at the kindergarten where I work as well, because all the students were going to be in hanbok, too, to make Korean food and play traditional Korean games.

We went to a traditional market after work one night and it was almost closed, but we found a lady who sold hanbok at the cheapest price we’d ever seen. We had gone in a few other stores before finding hers, but they were custom-order shops, and the prices were sky high. She helped us pick out one I liked, and it happened to be my size. Then I asked for a matching one that Junkyu could wear, and we were set. She lamented the fact that she couldn’t speak English, because she sometimes gets foreign customers she can’t communicate with. Since I spoke to her in a little bit of Korean, she threw in some traditional socks for free!

Our hanbok, upon arrival

Chuseok gave us a four-day weekend, and on Sunday, we went to church wearing our hanbok, but we really stood out because everyone else was dressed normally. I really wanted to get pictures with him, since we were all dressed up, but hanbok are so hot, and we were itching to take them off once the service was done. We went to our house and his family started arriving. He has two older sisters, both married, both with two kids each. We ran around looking for the camera battery but gave up and used our phones instead. We took a few pictures before changing into more comfortable clothes.

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The Korean women all started making food, and the kids ran up and down the stairs asking for things to entertain them. I still feel shy around them for lack of knowing what to say, but I played with the kids and tried to make polite conversation with the adults. After dinner, I made cookies, since we have an oven now (something I never had in Japan and sorely missed). The kids gobbled them up and everything was going well. Junkyu told me they would spend the night and then leave in the morning so that we could have some down time before leaving on the train for Ulsan.

The next morning, we ate breakfast and everyone started cleaning and getting ready. Some of them even took a shower, but no one was making to leave, so I asked my fiancé what time they were planning to head out. Apparently, this is the equivalent of asking a Korean person to leave, while in America I’d consider it just a normal question. His sisters had told Junkyu that they wanted to take him out to lunch for his birthday, but since I couldn’t understand their conversation (or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention when they talk about it) I had no idea. No one told me. I’m not good with sudden change of plans, so this made me slightly upset.

They were in my house and I had been told they were leaving so I could have time to get things I needed to done (like blog or do homework or relax with a book) but none of that was happening now, and I was the only one not ready to leave the house because I had no idea we were going so soon. It turned into a big misunderstanding, and I felt bad and Junkyu felt bad and everyone felt bad, but we did end up going to lunch and talking things out.

I just feel this immense pressure to get along with and be able to get to know his family and friends, but the language barrier and the cultural differences make it tough, and doing it on a day when we already have other plans or when I’m tired from work just magnifies the stress I feel.

In Ulsan, we ate dinner with his cousins and aunts and uncles, but not many of them would start up a conversation with me first. Junkyu told me they are shy around foreigners. I got so annoyed that I never get to actually have meaningful conversations with people that I made up my mind not to be shy or paranoid of making mistakes when speaking Korean. I pushed myself to talk to people more and it worked for the most part.

Of course, I’m not totally alone, and his friends and family are really nice to me. When she was at our house, his sister asked me “How many times does Junkyu invite his friends over?” When I told her it was close to every week that we were meeting people, she told him he needs to limit it to once a month or so because it’s too hard on me. I felt good that she understood my need for less craziness at home, especially on a work night.

I used to be okay with him translating everything for me and telling others about me, or at least I had to be okay with it because what choice did I have? Now, though, even though my Korean isn’t as good as I’d like it to be to hold deep conversations, when we were talking with his family, I found myself getting frustrated by the way he explained things to them. Even though I didn’t do a very good job linguistically, it felt good when I could stop him and tell the story from my perspective, in my own words. It felt even better when they actually understood me (not only my word choice, but how I felt). I just need to push him aside when he is becoming too much of a crutch. The way I learned Japanese was on my own, though studying and then going out and talking to my friends, who didn’t speak English.

I’m doing a lot better now, and I’ll talk more about how I’ve been making friends in Korea, but here’s to hoping that Korean Thanksgivings aren’t always so stress-inducing. As I watched the women wash the dishes and clean up the kitchen after dinner that night, I looked around and the only man who was helping was my fiancé. The other two men were on their phones or not paying attention to what was going on, but when I looked back to see Junkyu pitching in, I felt really lucky that he’s mine.

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6 thoughts to “A Korean Family Chuseok”

    1. I’m learning to relearn how I think about time… Too often I think that too much social or down time will get in the way of my goals, but I think it’s necessary to have time with family and friends and alone time doing nothing. I just get defensive when I think my time is being taken away. He is also working on telling me beforehand when we make plans and giving me a “go home early” option if we see his friends. Both of us have been stressed lately, but it’s getting easier I think. In upcoming posts I will talk about how things have gotten better since that weekend.

  1. Ah Chuseok… one of Korea’s lovely sexist times of year. Where children and men look forward to it, and daughter-in-law’s dread it. Or so I have heard from every married Korean woman I’ve talked to – I asked my boss how her Chuseok was, and she told me how exhausted she was, she looked like she might fall asleep on her desk :/

    I’m lucky though as Jun’s family has a huge excess of women to make the food. His dad’s not in the picture, so we all met at his (mum’s side) grandma’s house along with his mum, his other divorced aunt, his uncle and his wife and his two cousins (his divorced aunt’s children). Jun’s male cousin helped out as well as Jun and I, but of course his uncle did nothing – just lay around watching TV. Cause apparently if you’re a Korean man, you marry a woman so she can make all the festival food for you.

    I’m curious as to why his sisters were at your house though? Usually married women have to go to their husband’s family’s house and make food for that side of the family, like Jun’s uncle’s wife having to come to our Chuseok and not her parent’s.

    1. Yeah, I can tell it’s similar to American holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. The women are almost expected to remember how to do everything, bring all the food, clean up, while the kids and men just talk or play around. I think it’s nice that he helps out, though, so I’m grateful he’s not the type to just sit around watching everyone else work. However, I’m interested to see how future Chuseoks happen.

      Actually, you bring up a good point. His sisters usually bring their husbands and we have family outings, but I wonder if they ever go to their in-laws’ for holidays. Ugh, I’m glad Junkyu doesn’t expect me to make food all the time. He even told me he’d be happy staying at home if I made enough money because he loves cooking and cleaning and organizing the house.

      We should meet up sometime! Where in Korea do you live?

      1. Aww that’s cool 🙂 Yeah that would be fun! I live in Busan, but everything in Korea is kind of close haha :p Come down to Busan sometime! When I’m less poor I want to visit a few more places, and I would like to come to Daejeon.

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