Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Happy New Year - A Slow and Stressful Time in Seoul

It's the lunar new year this week, the biggest national holiday in Korea. Seoul has slowed WAY down as people take a break from work and school to gather with relatives, pay respects to their ancestors, and ring in the year of the rabbit!  My favorite waffle maker shut down his stand on Wednesday for a five-day break. The six lanes of constant traffic near my apartment today is a mere trickle of cars.

I stopped at the grocery store to stock up before it closed down too, along with the restaurants, and I found a lingering rush of people buying family presents (Gift boxes of spam are popular; So is scotch whiskey).  On the walk home I enjoyed the wide open sidewalks and thought about how nice it is that this stressed-out city takes a real break once in a while, that the manic energy pulsing through the air can actually subside, that the 80-hour-a-week workers and studiers can remember to put family time first, if only for a few days.

Then I remembered. Holidays are stressful. I just don't happen to celebrate this particular one, so it's not stressful for me.

A local newspaper reported a survey showing that the holiday stress of the average married Korean woman was actually "as bad as the pain of losing a close friend." Yikes. The article urged men to give their wives a helping hand in the painstaking meal preparations and hosting relatives.

"According to the survey, about 36 percent of 1,400 wives chose their husband as their least favorite person during the Lunar New Year holiday, followed by sister-in-law and parents-in-law...Some blamed their husbands for being only concerned about their in-laws and also for sleeping throughout the entire holiday."

A 30-something unmarried teacher explained her version of holiday stress to me: "It's a time when relatives ask me, 'Why aren't you married?' and when they ask my nephews, 'Why aren't you doing better in school?'"

For me, an expat living alone in Seoul, it's a time to read, to sleep, to write and to wander the empty city.  A rare stress-free holiday.  Happy year of the rabbit.

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