Happy Lunar New Year 2015

Happy Lunar New Year! 새해 복 많이 받으세요!

lunar new year

A sheep might bring happiness but apparently there is a lot of unhappiness going on at this time of year! That’s because of all the work that has to be done for the New Year festivities! An array of savoury pancakes have to be fried, meat and fish cooked, raw chestnuts peeled, vegetables mixed with sesame oil, and the signature dish of the day – rice cake soup – prepared. Then everything must be plated up early on Lunar New Year morning and presented on the alter to carry out the ancestral rites. And who has to do all this? The daughter-in-law! This is 명절 테러 myeong-cheol te-ro “Holiday Terror” 😮



명절 테러 myeong-cheol te-ro – literally ‘Holiday Terror’ is the feeling that daughters-in-law get at the prospect of having to spend the holidays with their in-laws! (Not me of course. I always have a wonderful time. 😉

There are lots of Korean dramas about terrible mother-in-laws treating their daughter-in-laws very badly indeed. And this relationship is well-known to be difficult and so there is a common expression for this situation: kobu kaltung (고부갈등 姑婦葛藤 conflict between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law) ko = mother-in-law, bu = daughter-in-law and kaltung means conflict.

Actually when it comes to family relationships Korean vocabulary is very specific and very pithy. For example 시댁 媤宅 shidaek refers to the home of one’s husband’s parents. 처가 妻家 cho-ka is the home of one’s wife’s parents. (all a bit of a mouthful in English) At Lunar New Year traditionally married women have to go to their shidaek and cook and prepare everything for all the family who are visiting.

rice cakes

In a survey carried out in the Jungang Daily newspaper, 70.5% of the wives (all in their 20s or 30s) who responded said they did NOT want to go to their in-laws for the holiday. And 52.7% said that they have suffered symptoms of 명절 증후군 myeong cheol chung-fu-gun holiday syndrome. These symptoms include feeling heavy with worry, lethargy, restlessness, depression,  migraine, and constipation. :(

The main reason for women wanting to avoid visiting the in-laws at 23% is that only the women are expected to do any work – cooking, washing up, etc. And so there is a rather macho atmosphere (남성 중심 nam-seong chu-shim). (I hear that there are more men helping out in the kitchen these days but old habits die hard I guess) Other reasons include that doing all the cooking is very tiring,  traveling to in-laws is expensive, and listening to nagging from family members is unenjoyable. 😕

Lunar New Year gift set

Then there’s gift giving. Gift giving is part of the New Year activities. How much you spend depends on your relationship but family members might just give money. Kids love New Year because they definitely get MONEY, but common gifts to give acquaintances include cooking oil, washing products, and tins of food.

Last week I noticed that the subway was full of office workers carrying gift sets of SPAM. This happens in last year’s popular TVN drama Misaeng too  (below) – the office workers at the company in the drama are given spam at holiday time. ( I loved this drama BTW) 


Mr Kim got Spam this year too. Spam arrived in Korea during the Korean War with the American military and I do think of it as a wartime food. The only person I have ever seen eat Spam is my grandma back in about 1979. So I asked Mr Kim, What’s the deal with the Spam? And he replied, “I don’t know.” (Not overly helpful. 😕 ) I think my grandma bought spam because it was a luxury item in the second world war.

Having to travel a long way to visit in-laws was another complaint of the wives in the survey and I can understand why people don’t want to travel too far. Every year I hear horror stories about how long it took my students to get back to their hometowns for the holiday. Every one has a personal best time when it took them the longest to get home. 10 hours to get home when it normally only takes 3 hours is not unusual. No wonder more and more people are staying in Seoul or going abroad for the holiday. (This year 780,000 people came in and out of Incheon airport during the holiday season)


But although the whole mother/daughter-in-law situation is well documented, (and has its own vocabulary to prove it) apparently there is a growing number of husbands who are struggling with their mother-in-laws too. As more young couples have full time jobs they need the help of their extended families which often means spending more time with the wife’s family. So while wives suffer 고부갈등 kobu kaltung, husbands are suffering from what is known as 장서갈등 (jang-seo kal-tung) conflict between son-in-law and mother-in-law. (I couldn’t find this expression in the dictionary though! So it must be a new word!)

Mr Kim is very lucky indeed as his cho-ka is in Britain so he doesn’t have to worry about visiting his in-laws at this time of year! 😉 But other men are not so lucky and are, as we speak, recovering after their stressful Lunar New Year visits. Here are 4 types of mother and son-in-law relationships that have been identified. (clips taken from the Jungang Ilbo Newspaper, 17th February 2015)

100 year guest

백년손님  (paek-nyeon-son-nim) = son-in-law (literal meaning: ‘ a guest for 100 years)

In this situation the mother-in-law and son-in-law remain respectful to each other but keep their boundaries. They don’t interfere in each other’s life and remain on friendly terms. But they also don’t feel particularly close – more like guests than family.

you are my child

너는 내 아이들 (no nun ne ai-dul) = ” you are my son”

In this relationship the mother-in-law treats her son-in-law like her own son and will even side with him to the annoyance of her daughter. The son-in-law also enjoys talking to his mother-in-law and there is more of a family-type relationship.

the servant

마당쇠 (ma-dang sui) = “servant”

In this relationship the mother-in-law interferes a lot in her daughter and son-in-law’s relationship and she is very close to her daughter (so will side with her). She bosses her son-in-law around and he feels bad thinking he is treated as a servant.


불청객 (pul-cheong-gek) = “an unwanted guest”

This is the worst of all the relationship types. The mother-in-law interferes in her daughter and son-in-law’s relationship and is critical of her son-in-law’s personality, job, and everything about him! The daughter also complains about her husband to her mother. One husband with this relationship said that he felt uncomfortable visiting his in-laws as his mother-law is always comparing him to her two other son-in-laws – one is a doctor and the other a lawyer. 😕

Looks like nobody can escape the power of the mother-in-law! But on a positive note, although 70% of wives said they didn’t want to go to visit their in-laws, 30% said they did want to go. So surely that means that at least some people had a nice New Year! 😉



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