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Is Father’s Day Any Better in Korea?

June 17th, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized

A red carnation, given to Korean parents

In a couple more days, dads across America will be let down by the unutterable boringness of the holiday dedicated to their existence. But, I’ve often wondered, is this a universal truth, or just our national fucked-up-ed-ness? So, I asked my friend Joe McPherson, a father and proprietor of the estimable ZenKimchi.com, what Father’s Day is like in South Korea. Here’s his response:

I only have six months experience raising a bicultural child in the other half’s country. I’m working the challenge of new fatherhood with a new version of culture shock that comes with having a Korean child in Korea. My wife has been making the transition from a hippie laissez-faire parental philosophy to the first growls of a tiger mom. And now I have to pay attention to special days I never cared about before.

Korea celebrates a lot of special days, and it crams many of them into May—twelve of them, in fact. There are Children’s Day, Buddha’s Birthday, Coming of Age Day, Citizens’ Day, Teacher’s Day, and somewhere in there is Parents’ Day. This combines Mother’s Day and Father’s Day into one zipped up and compressed occasion. And I wonder which parent wins out.

In Korean, it’s called “Eo-boi-nal,” which sounds like “Oh boy nal.” For much of my first years in Korea, I was teaching elementary students. I saw Oh Boy Nal as a distraction to give the books a rest for a day and let the kids make greeting cards. Okay, I still did much of the work, but I was impressed by the diligence with which some students worked on their messages—English proficiency be damned.

Korea places a ton of importance on family ties as well as familial hierarchy. During the Lunar New Year, children bow down on the floor in front of their grandparents. Chuseok, Korea’s harvest festival, families prepare food and wine for their ancestors and bow down in front of homemade shrines. When I met my mother-in-law for the first time, I had to do the bows, too. So you’d think Parents’ Day would be a big deal, especially since they’re combining them all into one.

The tradition is to give a carnation to each parent. And as is usually so in Korea, everyone plus everyone has to do the exact same thing. This year there was a small panic because carnation supplies were predicted to not meet demand. Yet somehow Oh Boy Nal passed with no bloodshed.

My wife is flexible with tradition when it goes up against convenience. We observed Parents’ Day by calling her mom and wishing her well, along with sending a gift. No carnations involved. Now that I’m no longer a teacher, I don’t need to ghostwrite a hundred cards for other kids’ parents. I’m a father. One half of the parental team. With the separate holidays for mom and dad in America, Mom and Dad each get days off in duties like changing diapers and driving kids to the mall. Who gets exempt in Korea when the days get combined?

Being only six months old, our daughter didn’t give us shit.

Oh, no, wait, she gave us plenty of that.


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