Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The true meaning of Chuseok

The true test of Canadian society, its people, structures and infrastructure, is its winter. We build everything for winter. The test of everything in Korea is its ability to withstand the crush load of crowds. The wide streets, highways that widen to 20 lanes on one side at the toll booths that mark the modern gates into seoul and the massive train and subway stations are all built to accomodate the rush hour, but ultimately they're built to accomodate Chuseok-like crowds when hoards of people leave Seoul to travel to their (sometimes supposed) hometowns.

Naturally, it's not easy. I was stuck in a kilometres-long traffic jam in front of Cheongnyangni station on Saturday afternoon, to the point that eventually the driver of the taxi I was in just asked me to get out. In Suwon, there was a wild-eyed, hurricane-like panic at E-Mart on saturday afternoon, evidenced by the sign in parking lot saying that it's best for everyone involved if you shop before 2 pm.

Chuseok is a stressful time of insane driving times (much of the online buzz about the holiday consists of traffic conditions), the fulfillment of ancient traditions in cramped, crowded modern society, and a lot of cooking that no one does anymore. It would be easy to forget about it and simply stay home and do something else.

But, ultimately, much as our culture celebrates Christmas as an affirmation of and universal participation in our affluence, Chuseok is a uniquely Korean triumph of stubborn will in the face of less-than-favourable odds. This a country dragged from the Third world to the First world by workaholics despite the crowded cities, the mountain landscape without natural resources and the constant threat of war. To suffer through a holiday that, to me at least, defies understanding for how little anyone really looks forward to it, is uniquely Korean.

Note that no one ever really looks forward to Chuseok. People will tell you that they're going to go to some tiny town in Chungbuk, but that doesn't mean they look forward to it. It means eight hours in a car, time away from friends and time with relatives you don't really know doing things that you don't really understand, and hours of cooking if you're a woman. Still, Confucian filial piety and sheer inertia keeps them going.

On the topic of filial piety: Suwon milks this slogan aptly, describing itself as "a city built on the filial piety of King Jeongjo" on its official website.

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