Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Oh The Pain of Being Older

Dear Korean,

I’m dating an American-born Korean guy. He’s the oldest son of the family and often refers to all of the “responsibilities” which he and any future wife of his would have. Could you explain what these duties/responsibilities are?

Thank you,

Trying to Learn

Dear Trying to Learn,

The Korean himself is an eldest son, and the responsibilities of his and his wife are significant. At least the Korean’s father is not the eldest son – if that were the case, the Korean would not be living in the U.S. Here is why.

To understand any Korean tradition, you must place yourself in traditional Korea. The economy of traditional Korea (or even in modern Korea, until the 1960s) was based on agriculture. The most valuable human resource in an agricultural society is people with upper body strength. Now, what is a group of people in a society that do not to have upper body strength, or a potential for it? Simple – old people.

In other words, old people are nearly useless in an agricultural society (as well as on modern freeways.) Therefore, someone needs to take the burden of taking care of them, because human decency overrides the economically efficient alternative of, well, you know, the “eu” word.

(In fact, there are some accounts that traditional Koreans did engage in a type of euthanasia for the elderly. There are stories of a Korean tradition, called Goryeojang, in which Koreans carried their old and infirm parents into a remote mountain with a small amount of food, eventually letting them die from starvation or exposure to elements. However, current consensus among Korean historians, based on ruins and artifacts, is that such custom is essentially a myth, and never truly existed.)

Over time, a bargain was made between old people and their eldest sons. The old folks will take care of their eldest sons, and the sons will take care of the old folks. Specifically, eldest sons are guaranteed to have a lion’s share in everything their parents have.

This is very significant in a world of scarce resource – and Korea has always been in that world. First sons are fed better; the Korean has always been served first in a family meal, and always received more food. First sons always receive new clothes and toys, while younger ones are relegated to hand-me-downs. If the family only has enough money to send one child to college, there is no question as to who goes. And most importantly, when the parents can no longer work, eldest sons receive the largest portion of the parents’ estate.

What must eldest sons do to deserve the benefits? Largely two things. First, they are expected to support their elderly parents as long as they live. Old folks always live with their first son, and all costs involved in taking care of the parents fall on the first son. Second, they are expected to support their elderly parents after they die, in the form of funeral, taking care of their graves, and yearly jesa.

(Jesa is basically a yearly memorial service, and the firstborn son is supposed to conduct it every year. If a grandfather dies, the first son of the grandfather’s first son is in charge of holding jesa for the grandfather, and so on. The first son among all first sons in an extended family is called jongson, and he is in charge of holding jesa for every dead male ahead of his generation, as well as tending the graves. This is why the Korean would have been stuck in Korea if the Korean Father were the first son of the Korean Grandfather. The Korean’s family is extremely traditional, and takes the jongson idea very seriously.)

Of course, in modern Korea, traditions are usually moderated into a reasonable degree. Instead of old folks living with eldest sons and driving them crazy, they often live nearby but in separate houses. Expensive hospital bills tend to be shared among all children, with well-off children shouldering a larger burden. But traditions in Korea die hard, mostly because those traditions were very much alive and kicking only two decades ago.

How would the wives of the eldest sons fit in the picture? Following the sexist Korean tradition of keeping the wives indoors, bare feet, and pregnant, a large chunk of the eldest sons’ responsibility to support the parents actually falls on the eldest sons’ wives. They are the ones who actually stay at home to take care of the old folks. Often it is not a pleasant task, because a lot of old folks are just like babies, except far less cute.

The tension is especially high between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. The old lady often follows her daughter-in-law around, criticizing every bit of housework. They compete for the attention of their son/husband. In addition, because the old lady went through the same process when younger, she feels entitled to make her daughter-in-law’s life miserable. (Here is an old post touching upon this subject.)

After the parents kick the bucket, the firstborns’ wives are still not off the hook. Guess who needs to cook all the traditional food required for jesa and host all the relatives to hold the ceremony at least once a year, and often several times a year? Hint: It is not a man. (Just look at a typical jesa set – can you imagine cooking all that? It takes all day, and you get scolded if you mess up anything.)

This burden is so bad that Korean women actually avoid dating and marrying a firstborn if they can. Widespread rumor says when matchmaking services in Korea (somewhat like eHarmony, but more focused on getting married,) evaluate a client, a male client who is a firstborn son loses several points simply for having the temerity to be born first.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@hotmail.com.


  1. I've heard a lot of stories about mean Korean mother-in-laws from a lot of people-- including my own mother, and I don't think it's something I could handle.
    I love your blog. I have a question for you one of these days, but it's truly silly.

  2. I would love to date /marry a 1st born. Its similar to my culture.


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