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Chusok: The Korean Thanksgiving

Chusok reminds us that Korea’s traditional gender roles and discrimination persist. As noted above, women spend several days cooking and preparing for the Chusok ceremony and family gathering. The men, on the other hand, relax and enjoy the festivities, and do not help much with the chores. Furthermore, since the family celebration is based upon paternal lineage, married women often are not able to celebrate with their original family. This aggravates gender discrimination, prompting some to complain openly or to disregard the tradition of Chusok altogether.

Some Christian denominations have discouraged or opposed the Korean tradition of worshiping ancestors or gods not connected with Christianity. Therefore, some Christian families honor their ancestors with prayers and hymns rather than bowing or offering them elaborate dishes. Nonetheless, Chusok is an important family holiday for Christians as well as non-Christians, as they all celebrate with their families, albeit in different ways.

Korean families are changing. In the past Koreans lived with at least three generations in one household. Now most urban families are nuclear, with only one or two children. Because of increased educational and occupational opportunities for women, as well as financial necessity, there are many more working wives than there were as recently as twenty years ago. Women also have to work to maintain a standard of living, which was sustainable with only one bread- (or rice-) winner in the family in the past. Thus the problems and challenges facing modern Korean families are not very different from those confronting U.S. families. Perhaps the most important difference is that for many Korean families educating children is the top priority. Day care for preschool children, dividing household chores among family members, caring for elderly parents, making ends meet during periods of financial hardship, and so on, are some of the problems routinely faced by Korean families. Caring for the elderly is an increasingly important issue because most modern families have only one or two children, many married women work, and, most of all, there is a lack of quality elderly care facilities.

One of the most sensitive issues facing Koreans is the division of families between North and South brought about by the Korean War (1950–53). On a family-oriented holiday, such as Chusok, this is particularly poignant. It has been over fifty years since many people have seen their loved ones, written to them, or even had knowledge as to whether they are alive or dead. This began to change dramatically in June 2000, when the heads of South Korea (President Kim Dae Jung) and North Korea (President Kim Il Sung) met for the first time in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. As a result, on August 15, 2000, 100 families each from South and North Korea were allowed to visit their relatives in the other Korea. Although 200 families is too few to alleviate the needs of over 7 million South Koreans reported to have families in North Korea, the August 15 event was a historic moment for the two Koreas. It signaled a giant step toward reconciliation and possible reunification in the future.

Even though many things have been changed by Korea’s rapid industrialization, urbanization, and globalization, family remains the bedrock of Korean society. Chusok is a celebration of family—both past and present.