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Note #10: The disintegration of the family gathering (2007.12.28)

Well, Christmas has come and gone, and it has been another slightly depressing holiday season for me. Granted, we still have the (solar) new year coming up in a few days, but that’s even less of a big deal here than Christmas.

I’ve discussed in brief elsewhere how Christmas is perceived and celebrated here, so I’m not going to retread that territory. Instead, I want to talk about another aspect of the holidays. Although the dates might be different here (the two big holidays here are the Lunar New Year and the Harvest Moon Festival, both of which are determined by the lunar calendar—the former is (obviously) on the first day of the lunar year, and the latter is on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar year), the way holidays are celebrated are more or less the same: members of the extended family gather to eat lots of food, talk, play games, etc.

Or at least that’s the way it used to be. I have many fond memories of getting together with all my cousins on Christmas or Thanksgiving and getting into various types of trouble while the adults all sat around the table long after there was no more stomach space to stuff any food into. In our family it was my mother’s side of the family that gathered—my father’s family was scattered to the four corners of the nation and rarely met—and everything more or less revolved around my grandmother (my mother’s mother). When she died, it seemed as if the lynchpin that had held everything together had come loose, and the whole contraption slowly began to fall apart. Since I have come to Korea, my uncle and one aunt have died, leaving only my mother and her twin sister (who lives out west). As a result, extended family gatherings have pretty much ceased to exist.

In Hyunjin’s family, both her father’s family and her mother’s family traditionally gathered on holidays. When the acting patriarch on her father’s side (the eldest uncle) died, I saw the same thing happen that had happened with my mother’s family in the States. Relatives stopped showing up to holiday gatherings, and the whole thing just fell apart. Hyunjin and I stopped going a few years back, although every now and then we will show up briefly. Hyunjin’s mother’s mother is still alive, so gatherings on that side of the family are still lively affairs, but the day will come when that will fall apart, too.

I was saddened when I saw this disintegration occurring in both of my families. Like I said above, I have many happy memories of family gatherings in the States, and I have equally happy memories of family gatherings here in the years after Hyunjin and I were married and I joined their family (typically it’s the other way around in Korea—a woman who marries “leaves the family and becomes an outsider” (chul-ga-oe-in)—but the fact that I don’t have any roots or family here reversed the usual roles). But I realized that it was a part of a natural progression, and I accepted that. I had always thought that this natural progression was cyclical rather than linear. That is, an extended family would spring up around a matriarch or patriarch and stay together until that person died, and then the family would slowly disintegrate as other older members died, and eventually new extended families would form around the younger members.

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if this really is a cyclical progression. In my particular case, we have no children, and neither of my brothers is married yet, so the chances of us forming a new extended family any time soon is pretty slim. But I think it goes beyond the issue of children. It seems to me that there is a paradigm shift occurring. One might think that advances in transportation and other technology would make it easier for extended families to meet, but the opposite seems to be happening. Although transportation technology has improved greatly over the past one hundred years, it is still an incredible pain in the neck to travel significant distances, in part due to the increase in the world population—more people makes travel more difficult. And yet the distances that people are placing between them and their roots are much greater than what can be comfortably traversed on a more or less regular basis.

I’ve made it back to the States for a Christmas or two in the dozen years I’ve been here, but that’s it. And forget Thanksgiving—the last Thanksgiving I celebrated in the States was in 1994. It’s just not feasible for me to return to my family for every holiday. And without the traditional family structure to hold things together, people separated by much shorter distances aren’t bothering to gather either. I still hope that someday we will have the type of family gatherings I grew up with, but the older I get the slimmer the chances seem. It’s tough for me because holidays have always been about family. Once you take away the family, what’s left? The trappings don’t mean anything without the heart.

Perhaps I’m being too pessimistic. Maybe things will change. Maybe it really is a cycle, but I just can’t see the curve from where I’m standing. Or maybe I’m just going to have to get used to the idea of a much smaller family unit during the holiday season. Whatever the case, I won’t be too upset when the holiday season is over and the new year kicks into gear.

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