Korean vs US Thanksgiving: Chuseok food, traditions and chauvinism
- Thanksgiving in the US and Korea is similar in many ways, but there are notable differences between the two harvest festivals
- In Korea, the Chuseok holiday can reinforce old gender roles and norms
For most of Korea’s history, the harvest festival known as Chuseok has been a time to celebrate. Traditionally, as the harvest is collected and stored for the long winter ahead, people’s thoughts turn to indulging in this season of plenty.
It is a phenomenon seen in many parts of the world, but there are several things that are unique about the Korean version of Thanksgiving, which was celebrated this year from September 23 to 25.
With the US celebrating Thanksgiving next week, we take a look at what these are.
A modern cultural touchstone
Just as how the US needed a national cultural moment to unite a society broken by the Civil War, Koreans have their own modern use for their thanksgiving holiday. Chuseok is a celebration of Korean culture but perhaps more importantly today it serves as a modern cultural touchstone. In a country that has modernised, urbanised and digitalised faster than any other country, the need to celebrate tradition has become increasingly important.
Chuseok helps to reinforce the more conservative Korean values and customs that are fading away, and gives people a chance to pay respects to their ancestors.
The family feast
In Korea’s past, beef (and most red meat) was a luxury that only royalty and the rich could afford. Even though it is now within reach of almost all Koreans, beef is still seen as a high-end food.
For many families, that has resulted in the hearty stewed beef dish galbi jjim becoming almost essential for any proper Chuseok family feast.
Another must on the Chuseok table are songpyeon rice cakes, which are often colourful and filled with sweet red bean paste or other sweet fillings.
Besides these two festival mainstays, the table will also be filled with fried japchae sweet potato noodles and as many banchan side dishes as the female family members can prepare.
After-dinner recovery during Chuseok is similar to that seen during Thanksgiving in the United States: lots of sitting around, idle chatting and a bit of chiding from older relatives. In both countries, much of the socialising happens around the television.
But while American football rules US screens, in Korea, television dramas and variety shows are enjoyed all evening after the eating is done.
Even today, however, this period of relaxation is mostly only enjoyed by male family members.
The trouble with Chuseok
As Chuseok reinforces older gender roles and norms, many modern young women resent having to suddenly become cooks and servants for their male relatives.
Then they have to face questions about why they don’t have a boyfriend, aren’t married or haven’t had children yet.
While Chuseok is similar to many harvest festivals around the world, it casts an interesting light on the country’s social tensions while at the same time offering a unique window into what makes Korean culture tick.