Chuseok and 차례 and sexist traditions.

Taking a much needed break from studying tonight to talk about something personal. As everyone knows, Chuseok is just around the corner, and I've been holding my tongue and not-so-secretly hoping to put Busan on a train to his family, wave goodbye, and go about my business on the long weekend, hanging out with my friends.

Today, at a coffee shop while Busan was helping me practice Korean by speaking nothing but, he suddenly switched back to English. "I decided I'm going to ask my mom if you can come to Chuseok."

We sort of went through this last year, when we had been together for only about ten months. He had, without my permission, asked his mom if I could attend. Her answer had been a frank, "Are you engaged? Then no, she cannot come to Chuseok." Busan attempted to argue that I was a foreigner in another country without family on a holiday, and how I should be able to attend under those conditions. There was more behind his mother's reasoning for why I shouldn't be there, but I didn't find any of that out  until today.

Busan, learning from my frustration with the situation last year (me, embarrassed that he had suggested and pushed for something improper on my behalf, without talking it over with me first), did think to run the idea past me first. We're still not engaged. But we've been together nearly two years. Lately, our plans together have started to move further and further into the future and I'm not saying we will wind up married, but it's safe to say this isn't exactly a joke or a fling. Still, I'm not entirely sure if this is quite the right time.

I told Busan that he can ask his mother once, so long as he makes it clear that it's not coming from me, and so long as he doesn't argue with her answer. The worst possible case scenario I can imagine meeting his parents under would be one of duress. There's going to be enough pressure as it is.

Busan agreed to these terms and then his face clouded over a bit. The conversation that followed showed me that although we know each other well, by now, there are still things he doesn't quite understand about me yet.

"The thing is," he said, "My mom said that if you come, you have to help prepare 차례. She said it's the proper way."

"Of course!"

"What? Do you know what that means?"

"Yes, I know what that means. There is no way in fuck I would ever dream of turning up at your parents' house on Chuseok and not helping your mother prepare 차례. She'll obviously have to be patient with me -- I won't know what I'm doing, but if she's willing to give me directions, I'll do whatever she tells me."

"But you know.... it's kind of a sexist thing. Only women in the kitchen, doing all the work. Men, in the room, sleeping. That doesn't make you angry?"

At that point, I explained the way that things work at my house on Thanksgiving. And introduced him to the phrase, "out from under foot," which is a favorite of my grandmother's, directed toward the men of the family during the preparation of the meal. How I remember being up before dawn to sit in the kitchen and watch my grandmother put the turkey in the oven, how the women of the house move around in the dark to start preparing the food for the day.

"I can't believe America is like that."

I explained to him that a lot of America is not like that, but that part of the reason my best friend here and I get along so well is that we both come from backgrounds that are not altogether common in our generation. Her's comes from the Japanese influence on her background, mine from the Southern Baptist.

Given that he ranks this friend amongst the strongest and most notoriously feminist of my acquaintances, he was a little taken aback.

But I spoke to that friend just now about this situation, and we talked for a long time about how we don't see the conflict. To us, it's a part of tradition. And tradition is a part of being a strong family. To me, it's comforting to know that those are his mother's expectations, on some level. There's a small connection in the midst of everything that is so different between our families' respective backgrounds. I may not know what most of the food is, or how to make it, and I may struggle to understand her directions to me in Korean, but the one thing I would understand would be the two of us alone in that kitchen to begin with.

And to me, being in that kitchen is a part of being accepted by his family. It's a chance to prove that whatever else I may struggle to do, I am at least willing. And that's an important part of the impression that I want to make when I meet his parents for the first time.

 In the conversation with my friend, I recounted how I had told Busan that if we get married, when we make our own family traditions, that is the time for men to enter the kitchen. There is a time and a place for generational change, and meeting his parents for the first time is not it.

My friend said, "But really? Let's be honest here: ten years down the line, when we're cooking Thanksgiving dinner for our families, are we really going to want the men in the kitchen, getting in our way? Is [Busan] the one you want cooking your Thanksgiving turkey?"

I quickly flashed back to this morning, when Busan and I started to get hungry. Two weeks ago, he brought me some of his mother's kimchi, so he decided to make kimchijeon for brunch. As I sat and watched him struggle getting the flour-to-water ratio correct and muttering out loud about what he should do about it, something inside of me flared up, and before I knew it, I had taken the bowl out of his hands. He objected: "This is Korean food! You've never made this before!"

But I dumped his mess out, and quickly remixed the concoction to my own satisfaction. After I had poured the mix into the frying pan, I stepped away for a moment and Busan haphazardly moved toward the pan, spatula in hand: "You don't touch that! It's not ready to be turned yet!"  

Maybe it's alright for some traditions to remain.


Anonymous said...

Chuseok would only be the tip of the proverbial sexist ice-berg.

Bi-weekly apartment cleaning, food prep, being "on call" for all kinds of random stuff, etc.

I'm no Picasso said...

You know what? If his mother is to be my mother in law, I'm pretty sure I can get to know her and her expectations on my own, with time. People tried to tell me what my boyfriend would expect of me, too. Not much of that has panned out.

Anonymous said...

You essentialize Chuseok as "sexist," someone points out that it's part of a larger picture (kinda-sorta-very-complicated, obviously), and then you lash out.

You win!

I'm no Picasso said...

Did I call Chuseok sexist? You'll have to explain that to me. I think I was dealing with the subject of only the women preparing charye. I also don't remember lashing out so much as just disagreeing with a comment.

At any rate, while I appreciate your advice, I think I know a bit more about those larger pictures than you might realize. Possibly even more than you know about them. But I appreciate the warning about what I "will" face.

DJ Never said...

Hee hee, I struggle with letting people help me in the kitchen too. I think it's okay to stick to certain traditions but maybe not for their original reasons. After all, it's not like you kick Busan out of the kitchen because he's a guy, but because he sounds like he's kind of hopeless.

Good luck with Chuseok!

Katherine said...

One year, my (male) Korean friend, in his well-meaning "I'm a progressive kind of guy!" way tried to help prepare the 차례. He got shooed out of the kitchen, and his dad told him: "Son, some things are just better if the women do them."

But in his family, the men clean up afterwards, so the work gets more or less fairly divided.

SL said...

My brain is always chewing on this kind of stuff. I have a lot of memories of Chuseoks (and New Years! and other holidays too) seeing my paternal aunts and grandmas working in the kitchen producing enormous amounts of foods while my uncles would drink, smoke, and bet on Go-Stop in the living room. It's not so bad when you think that women weren't even allowed to participate in the Charye ceremony in the past (the actual ceremony for the ancestors), just to do the cooking part, so I'd say it's actually more egalitarian now.

Part of me just thinks that Charye is sexist as hell anyway. It's probably the same Angry Feminist part of me that gets grossed out by what I see as learned helplessness in some men (fairly, some women, too). I remember having to walk an ex-boyfriend step by step through the instructions for making boxed macaroni one time... Ugh, grow up! Why the hell should I coddle that!

On the other hand, in practice, I also know from my grandma that making someone food = showing them love, cooking together = you are family, and abstaining from family rituals = you are a guest forever. Plus, I actually really enjoy cooking.

There has to be a compromise somewhere... I wish my father's family had an arrangement like in Katherine Koba's friend's house. I think if everyone is flexible enough, there can be a happy accommodation made.

Urashima Joe said...

"There is a time and a place for generational change, and meeting his parents for the first time is not it."

I really have to respect you for this comment. You don't think your personal ideals come before -everything- else, including the traditions and feelings of others around you.

I remember when I was 22 (seven years ago now... *gulp* and a strict vegetarian. Visiting my then girlfriends house I was served food with meat in it which I then decided not to eat. (I had mentioned I don't eat meat, but its still a strange idea to many people in Japan). God, I just wish I could go back in time and slap myself.

Sidney said...

Would it be only Busan's parents/siblings or his whole family? I mention going to Chuseok and people are like "no, it's ok! I went and it was great!" (people, meaning other foreigners). But it isn't just his mom, dad and sister. It is his whole family. His whole family, aunts, uncles, cousins, great uncles, grandmother, all come over to his house, because his family is the "head" of the family. I get how it can be fun after you get into it and, of course, the family is comfortable around you, but the fist initial meeting freaks me out and seems so stressful.

I'm no Picasso said...

DJ Never -- He is a bit hopeless but like others have said, I'm really not sure if it's learned helplessness or not. When he's half-assing the dishes, I know it is, but he really wanted to be the one to cook that kimchijeon and he was really struggling with the flour. It's not something he's cooked with very often.

KK -- I would absolutely be down for a men-do-the-clean-up solution. Or, for example, say I have a son? I would absolutely keep him in the kitchen with me so he can see what's going on and be ready to help his wife with 차례 if she wants it.

SL -- I know what you're saying. I guess the position I've fallen into with some of these things is that, as long as the man doesn't expect it, or treat it as my "role", then I'm fine. But families are families and there are personal concessions you have to make sometimes, especially when it's not really your place to shake things up. And I would say Busan's family's holiday is not really my "place".

SL -- I had a conversation about this once with a friend whose parents were religious, while he found organized religion to be fundamentally flawed. We both agreed that sometimes when your grandmother wants you to go to church, you just go.

Sidney -- Good heavens, no. It will only be his immediate family. If it was going to be the whole shebang, I might actually just insist that there was no reason for me to be there at all until there was actually a wedding date set. Mostly because I would be having a mental breakdown, and I don't want to have to face that until I absolutely have to.

아만다 said...

Unrelated to this post, I heard Psy's "Gangnam Style" around 430 pm on a top 40 station in the DC area.

There you go. Radio play.

3gyupsal said...

I don't think that the preparing of the food is necissarily sexist. If the men in a family are lousy cooks they probably shouldn't cook. What is pretty sexist though, is that when it comes time to eat the food, the men all eat first while the women bring them food. But yes. I think that this is definatly a good sign for you. If this lady really wants you to be her daughter in law it is good that she wants you to help make all of the food. A casual guest would just be invited for dinner, but you, you are playing a role that is reserved for family members. She is treating you the way she would treat a Korean woman, so that could good. I don't think that it will just be you and her in the kitchen though. I think there will probably be a few other relatives present, and they are all going to ask you when you are going to get married. They might even bring out a calendar and have you choose a date. Chuseok and Seollal are the days when the adult-unmarried populations of a family get the intense pressure of impending nuptuals...even if they aren't in a relationship. It might be good for you to go just so that Busan's aunts and uncles don't casually mention that they know someone who he should marry. You'll definitly change the topic of conversation.

The Pondering Introvert said...

It's time for a change, but I do agree, certain things are best to remain as it is

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