▲ Chuseok has always been an occasion for families to gather, though this seems to be changing with modernization. Families are opting to travel and find easier, more economical ways to celebrate the holiday. Photo courtesy Jeju Folklore & Natural History Museum, Jeju Special Self-Governing Province
There is a traditional Jeju saying that the island has always been devoid of beggars, gates, and thieves. However, times do change on our little island, and though it may not exactly resemble the island of yesteryear, a few recent media items help remind me that I am truly living here.
For instance, a summer TV show showing packed beaches on the mainland causes me to question how so many people can squash in on such small beaches and still enjoy themselves. Jeju Island has many good beaches along the coast, so there is no need to worry about too many people on one beach. Moreover, the terrifying images on the news of massive traffic jams generated by people travelling to and from their hometowns during Chuseok and Seollal (Lunar New Year) is not a problem on the island.
Having said that, there are still many arrivals at Jeju International Airport during Chuseok (one recent report said airlines had increased the number of seats to Jeju over the four-day holiday by 28,000). While it is true that once you get to the island you will rarely run into traffic, visitors need to remember to book their flight at least one month in advance during Chuseok. The crowd that can be seen at Jeju International Airport on the first day of the holiday consists mainly of young Jeju citizens, who work or study in places like Seoul, returning home to hold rites to honor and show their respect to their ancestors during the harvest season.
In South Korea, which was once, and in some respects still is, an agricultural society life has now shifted more to one of commerce. With this transformation its traditions have also undergone change. Chuseok was once not only a family event, but a community affair. Along with showing respect to one’s ancestors, it was meant to celebrate the harvest season, an event in which the entire community played a role. Community used to hold a cherished place in Korean society, but with the country’s economic boom in the last 30 years, the commonwealth was less needed for one’s survival, and the role it played in people’s lives became less necessary.
This phenomenon is not restricted to Jeju, though. Recently, more and more people are opting to travel by air during the big holidays and not always with the intention of visiting their families. Traditionally, a single person would seldom pass up the chance to attend this family reunion, but a new trend has been emerging with people taking advantage of the Chuseok and Seollal holidays to go traveling.
Indeed it is common to find a whole family going for an extended trip during the holidays, especially when they run into weekends, and even to hold a simplified form of the ancestral rites at the travel site. This trend was highlighted in a Sept. 21, 2010 Maeil Business Newspaper report, which sited a 400 percent increase in sales of portable utensils used in the rites in a year. It also reported that luggage sales increased by 180 percent compared to 2009.
In the Korean Confucian tradition, families are expected to visit their parents’ home, which can mean traveling from big cities like Seoul to the countryside. But nowadays it is not uncommon to find parents visiting their son’s home to spend the Chuseok holidays. With the Korean community culture in rural areas rapidly disappearing, this idea has some merit as the parents avoid traffic by traveling in the opposite direction to the families returning to their rural villages. Statistics from the Korea Transport Institute in 2010 outline this trend, reporting that among 1.68 million vehicles on the road during Chuseok, 708,000 of them were headed from rural areas to urban ones.
It is also interesting to see that many spouses, especially newlyweds, are looking to take more care of both the wife and husband’s maternal parents. Traditionally, only the husband’s family was visited, but nowadays the wife’s family also have the pleasure of seeing her family. In some respects this signifies the increase of the social status of women, and on the other this trend may be indicative that due to the number of working mothers, grandmothers tend to look after the children. Visiting a wife’s parents was an option in the past, but now more couples accept it as the norm.
Chuseok is also a big opportunity for companies to increase their profits. Reading peoples’ minds, they create commercial and social trends to achieve this goal. Combined with a recent and very commercial message of “well-being,” they have created a range of new products for Chuseok gifts for parents, even including tooth implant gift certificates as well as insurance policies specifically for the elderly.
Some senior citizens might be concerned to find that — in place of the ritualistic family preparation of food — there are now companies which prepare and deliver all necessary food for the ancestral rites. The price range starts from less than 200,000 won to 400,000 won. Considering the effort they save in the buying and preparing needed for the rite dishes, this is a small expense.
This is especially the case when many people consider the surplus food to be too much for a small family. It somehow prevents food waste. There is more good news for busy people looking to keep their ancestors’ graves clean (see page 11 for more on this). In 2008 Nonghyup (National Agricultural Cooperative Federation) started a nationwide grave-cleaning service, and this year they expect to receive 1,000 Jeju Island clients. The service price ranges from 50,000 to 100,000 won per grave, and this is especially welcomed by families without sons to take care of graves.
I agree that we have to use what makes our life easier in modern society. At the same time I feel sorry when it seems like people follow the modern forms of Chuseok. I recall that family members got together to prepare Chuseok food and shared time together during Chuseok in my youth. In those days people used to line up in front of a mill to pound rice into powder and make rice cakes at home. Now, people line up to buy ready-made food to hold the rites in a traditional market. More people order rice cakes and there is much choice both in the online and offline shops.
Still many people return home during Chuseok. Many family members still get together and friends share the joy of reuniting in a town. The scenery may be changing fast, but it doesn’t change that people are looking forward to Chuseok.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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