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


SEOUL, South Korea — Every year for the previous three a long time, the Joo brothers have traveled again to their hometown from South Korea’s capital to mark the Chuseok vacation.

They drive from Seoul with their respective households, foregoing a bullet prepare that might reduce the journey in half, with automobile trunks filled with presents. And so they at all times save room for the enormous meal that they eat with their mother and father to mark Chuseok, the tough Korean equal of Thanksgiving.

This 12 months, the federal government has requested South Koreans to remain residence throughout Chuseok, which runs by the weekend, to keep away from exacerbating the nation’s newest coronavirus outbreak.

Many South Koreans, together with the Joo household, have grudgingly adopted orders, however their acquiescence comes with an emotional worth: A usually joyful time of 12 months now feels empty of its sacred rituals, and clouded with emotions of tension and disorientation.

“Watching my mother and father get older and alter typically worries me, however seeing them in particular person places my thoughts comfortable once more,” stated Joo Jae-wook, 57, a retired salesman and the oldest of 4 brothers, one among whom nonetheless lives near residence. “However this 12 months I can’t even try this.”

Chuseok falls on the closest full moon to the autumn equinox, often called a harvest moon. It’s also celebrated in North Korea, albeit with out the Thanksgiving-like vacation journey rush that precedes the model within the South.

The vacation has deep hyperlinks to South Korea’s agricultural previous and its customized of ancestor worship. Most households returning to their hometowns — often that of the husband or father, although the custom is evolving — go to graveyards and tidy their ancestors’ tombs. Additionally they set out fruit on picnic mats as ritual choices, alternate presents and collect to make songpyeon, a particular rice cake that symbolizes familial bonds.

“For folks in my technology, Chuseok means household and luxury,” Mr. Joo stated. “We renew our sense of group and belonging by getting collectively and catching up with kin.”

Throughout a standard Chuseok, South Korea’s roads and public transit system pressure to accommodate all of the people who find themselves speeding again from cities to their hometowns. Prepare tickets promote out nicely upfront.

However this 12 months, trains are leaving stations half empty due to social distancing restrictions. Passengers are shopping for seats on the final minute with relative ease.

South Korea has reported 415 deaths and greater than 23,000 coronavirus infections because the pandemic started, together with greater than 500 new instances previously week. The nation’s response has been broadly praised as a mannequin, however a current outbreak that started in Seoul has examined the federal government’s technique of utilizing social-distancing restrictions and intensive monitoring to maintain the virus at bay with out shutting down the economic system.

On Wednesday, President Moon Jae-in told the nation that South Korea’s folks have been observing Chuseok at a “tough time,” and their sacrifices can be rewarded. “The federal government will certainly repay the individuals who have endured the difficulties by succeeding in controlling the virus and defending the economic system,” he stated.

That provided little consolation to Choi Jee-woong, a contract M.C. in Gangnam, a well-heeled Seoul district.

Mr. Choi, 39, and his mother and father usually spend Chuseok in South Jeolla province, the place his father grew up. However they’re skipping the journey this 12 months as a result of his mom is unwell, he stated, and he plans to spend the vacation watching Netflix.

“It feels fairly desolate lately,” Mr. Choi stated, sitting on a bench outdoors a restaurant. “I’m an lively and social particular person, however some sort of emotional barrier has gone up amongst us.”

Mr. Joo, the retired salesman, stated that he and his spouse usually spend Chuseok shuttling between the southern metropolis of Gwangju, the place his mother and father reside, and her mother and father’ residence in close by Sunchang County.

Two weeks in the past, his mother and father instructed him to not come this 12 months, citing the federal government’s recommendation.

He agreed, nevertheless it didn’t quell his lingering nervousness in regards to the pandemic and its grinding restrictions.

“If there was a set timeline, folks would really feel extra hopeful,” stated Mr. Joo, who lives in a quiet residential neighborhood. “However I’m scared as a result of we don’t know if there’ll ever be an finish to this.”

Mr. Joo stated that the household will miss the tales that his father tells about rising up beneath Japanese occupation in part of northeast China then often called Manchuria, and of the hardships of life in South Korea throughout the late Fifties.

The couple’s daughter, Joo Hyena, 26, stated that many younger folks in South Korea really feel as if the pandemic has left them “deserted and thrown onto the ground.”

“For folks in search of jobs or those that have been simply employed for the primary time, the begin to their profession has not what they ever needed or imagined,” stated Ms. Joo, who lately give up her job at a multinational cosmetics firm.

As for Chuseok, she stated, younger folks typically discover it tedious as a result of kin typically ask intrusive questions on their careers and relationships.

However Ms. Joo added that the vacation has a “vibrant vitality” that tends to deliver folks collectively. A few of her fondest recollections, she stated, are of using by rice and pepper fields within the early autumn, on the again of her late maternal grandfather’s bike.

“It used to make us really feel extra entire and beneficiant, placing effort and time into getting ready meals and presents for each other, as others would possibly really feel at Christmas,” Ms. Joo stated of Chuseok celebrations previous. “However this 12 months issues are fragmented, and the streets appear lonesome.”

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

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