Covid-19 Upends South Korea’s Chuseok Competition, and Its Rituals

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SEOUL, South Korea – For the past three decades, the Joo brothers have returned from South Korea’s capital to their hometown once a year to celebrate the Chuseok holiday.

They travel from Seoul with their respective families and forego a high-speed train, which would cut the trip in half with a trunk full of gifts. And they always save space for the huge meal they eat with their parents to mark Chuseok, the rough Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving.

This year, the government has asked South Koreans to stay home during Chuseok, which runs all weekend, so as not to aggravate the recent coronavirus outbreak in the country.

Many South Koreans, including the Joo family, have reluctantly followed orders, but their consent comes with an emotional price: a normally joyous season now feels empty of its sacred rituals and full of feelings of fear and disorientation.

“When I see my parents get older and change, I often worry, but when I see them in person, I calm down,” said Joo Jae-wook, 57, a retired salesman and the oldest of four brothers , one of which still lives near home. “But I can’t even do that this year.”

Chuseok falls on the full moon, which is closest to the autumn equinox, and is known as the harvest moon. It’s also celebrated in North Korea, albeit without the Thanksgiving-like vacation travel storm that precedes the version in the south.

The holiday has deep ties to South Korea’s agricultural past and the custom of ancestor worship. Most families returning to their hometown – usually those of the husband or father, although tradition continues to develop – visit cemeteries and clean up their ancestors’ graves. They also place fruit on picnic mats as ritual offerings, exchange gifts, and collect songpyeon, a special rice cake that symbolizes family ties.

“For the people of my generation, Chuseok means family and comfort,” said Joo. “We renew our sense of community and belonging by meeting and catching up with relatives.”

During a normal chuseok, South Korea’s roads and public transportation are a burden for all people returning from cities to their hometowns. Train tickets are sold out early.

This year, trains leave stations half empty due to social distancing restrictions. It is relatively easy for passengers to buy last-minute seats.

South Korea has reported 415 deaths and more than 23,000 coronavirus infections since the pandemic began, including more than 500 new cases in the past week. The country’s response has been widely lauded as a model, but a recent outbreak in Seoul has tested the government’s strategy of using socially distant restrictions and extensive tracking to keep the virus in check without shutting down the economy.

On Wednesday, President Moon Jae-in announced to the nation that the people of South Korea are watching Chuseok at a “difficult time” and that their sacrifices are being rewarded. “The government will certainly repay the people who endured the difficulties by managing to control the virus and protect the economy,” he said.

That offered little consolation to Choi Jee-woong, a freelance MC in Gangnam, a well-heeled district of Seoul.

Mr. Choi, 39, and his parents usually spend Chuseok in South Jeolla Province, where his father grew up. But they’re skipping the trip this year because his mom is not doing well, he said, and he plans to spend the vacation watching Netflix.

“It feels pretty bleak these days,” said Mr. Choi, sitting on a bench outside a cafe. “I’m an active and social person, but some kind of emotional barrier has risen among us.”

Mr. Joo, the retired salesman, said that he and his wife usually spend chuseok between the southern town of Gwangju, where his parents live, and their parents’ home in nearby Sunchang County.

Two weeks ago, citing government advice, his parents told him not to come this year.

He agreed, but it did not suppress his ongoing concern about the pandemic and its grinding restrictions.

“If there was a set schedule, people would feel more hopeful,” said Mr. Joo, who lives in a quiet residential area. “But I’m scared because we don’t know if this will ever end.”

Mr. Joo said the family will miss the stories his father will tell about growing up under Japanese occupation in what was then known as Manchuria and the hardships of life in South Korea in the late 1950s.

The couple’s daughter, Joo Hyena, 26, said many young people in South Korea feel that the pandemic has “left them and thrown on the ground”.

“For people looking for work or just recently hired, the start of their careers was not what they ever wanted or imagined,” said Ms. Joo, who recently quit her job with a multinational cosmetics company.

As for Chuseok, young people often find it boring because relatives often ask intrusive questions about their careers and relationships.

But Ms. Joo added that vacation has a “bright energy” that tends to bring people together. Some of her fondest memories, she said, are driving through rice and pepper fields in early fall on her late maternal grandfather’s motorcycle.

“We used to feel more whole and generous and invest time and effort to prepare food and gifts for each other, as others might do at Christmas,” said Ms. Joo about past Chuseok celebrations. “But this year things are fragmented and the streets seem lonely.”

Jun Michael Park reported from Seoul and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.

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