Gendered Expectations in Korea
I’ve already talked a bit about the gender expectations with regards to economic provisions (and I will discuss those later), but now I want to turn to a few other expectations which make it much harder for white Western women to form long term relationships with Korean men. Korea is a neo-Confucius society which means a lot of things, but for our purposes here, it means that the eldest son – and sons in general have much more long-term responsibility to their parents than daughters. When I first announced my engagement to a few older Korean women, one of the first questions they asked (with a look of anguish on their faces) was, ‘Is he the eldest son?’ No, thankfully he is the youngest of three with one older brother, but eldest sons, even in less traditional families, have way more responsibility…and this duty is transferable to the eldest son’s wife.
One of my Korean friends who married a Canadian man told me that one of the greatest perks of having a Canadian husband was that she did not have a demanding mother-in-law. They are legendary in Korea. Whether or not all mother-in-laws are as evil as they are sometimes portrayed, in general it is safe to say that they are somewhat more demanding, and the cultural expectations of a daughter-in-law are greater than in the mainstream Canadian context. My friend loves that during family gatherings she is a guest in her mother-in-law’s house instead of a worker serving men who do nothing but socialize and drink. She loves that she is not responsible for cleaning her mother-in-law’s house and does not have to prepare the enormous amount of food necessary for ancestral memorial rituals (and then be excluded from the ceremony because she is a woman). For her, marriage to her husband is about her relationship with her husband and not duty toward her mother-in-law. Again, whether or not these duties are always required by Korean in-laws, and whether or not white Western women are part of this system are issues for another forthcoming post, but the point is that many Korean women that I know at the very least appreciate the fact that they have avoided these duties when they married Western men while white Western women know that at the very least there is a greater possibility that this is what they are setting themselves up for when they marry into a Korean family.
Additionally, while white Western men report more problems in society accepting their relationships to Korean women, I do think there is a certain factor within Confucianism which makes this partnership easier. When women marry, they are taken off their family’s registry and added to their husband’s family registry. And traditionally, when women married, they were no longer the responsibility of their family – or even part of it – which is the whole premise for the paebek ceremony when the new daughter-in-law bows to her husband’s family and shows her obedience and loyalty to them. In the past women did not even visit their family members on holidays because they were expected to be helping out at their husband’s family’s house.
On the other hand, a son is always part of the family and thus has responsibility to his family. While this situation has changed dramatically in recent years, so that couples often visit both sides of the family, and bow to both families at the paebek ceremony, there is still a feeling that when a woman marries she leaves her family while when a man marries he stays. After greeting my mother for the first time, the very next thing my father-in-law said to my mother was to thank her for ‘sending her daughter to his family’ – the expression referring back to the time when women left their families and joined a new one – but in my case having the double meaning of actually flying to another country to be with Mr. Lee.
What does this mean for international marriages? Well, a contemporary role for Korean women is to be in charge of the children’s education. So if a Western man wants to return to his home country, and he is married to a Korean woman, while the family might be very upset at her leaving, the fact that there is a tradition of the woman leaving means that there is some precedent. But even more importantly, as there is a contemporary practice of sending children overseas to learn English, or for mothers and children to move abroad for ‘better’ education means that it is often easier for women to go to their husband’s home country in order to ensure the best possible education for their children. I know many Korean women who are pushing/did push their Western spouse to move abroad for this very reason, and in most cases, it was not only accepted but actively encouraged by their Korean family members.
At this point you may be asking, “Well why can’t Korean men move abroad if it means a ‘better education’ for their children?” That’s a good question and it has to do with life stages, gender roles, and employment which makes my separation of each topic problematic, but I do think it is necessary to have some kind of organization for this lengthy topic. We’ve already established the fact that there is an age and life stage gap between white Western women and Korean males. If you are interested in dating a younger guy, you run into the problem of being at different life stages. However, if you are interested in dating an older guy you run into a whole other set of issues. The salaryman factor.
Getting into a top company and/or a stable job is no easy matter in Korea, and if you have made it that far, you are going to be either a younger guy from a well-connected and wealthy family or a later-20s guy because it took so long with your military service + studying for tests + taking tests to actually get to that job. And by that time, if you have actually achieved that position, you are not going to easily give up that position to move abroad where you may or may not find a position and where you are probably not ‘qualified’ because in Western countries ‘qualified’ means more long-term employment than taking a lot of tests which is what it means in Korea. Since there is an even stronger cultural expectation in Korea than in Canada that a man will provide for his family and wife in an economic sense, it’s very difficult for a Korean man in this situation to even be open to the possibility of giving up his life here and going abroad.
My dear friend met her then boyfriend when she was already planning on leaving Korea, but the fact that he was mid-20s without gainful employment – or even a clear vision of what he wanted in life was a further problem in their relationship. She encouraged him to do a program abroad which would have given him a practical skill and 100% chance at a job upon completion of the program, but his parents vetoed him going abroad. There were other reasons for them breaking up, but his life stage and inability to go abroad to become employed were definitely factors which discouraged them from being able to continue with their relationship.
On the other hand, I met Mr. Lee when he was 33. He had a degree, had finished military service, had traveled and done all of his tests…but he had also been working in a safe and secure job for five years. And this means that at both that time and now, he is not in a position to go abroad at least for many years. I’ll deal with this issue and how we have negotiated around it in a subsequent post, but for now let me say that the fact that our future for the next decade or more is in Korea with no flexibility to move was a huge issue for me to overcome for many years.
So why this push to go abroad in the first place? Why is this even an issue? Isn’t Korea a good enough place to live? Well…yes and no.
I’m not even going to into the stats and the facts right now, but a short search will show you the numbers for Korean women in the workplace and the rather low place Korea occupies on international gender indexes. Often Canadians will ask me ‘Are Korean women allowed to get an education?’ which is a hilarious question if you live here. As I’ve mentioned so many times here, the regular things feminists worry about like domestic control of money and education are not proper ways to evaluate the real social gains for women in Korea. Girls are educated to the same extent as boys, and they are excelling far beyond boys in many subjects and areas. Women can get jobs, and they sometimes become managers and CEOs. However, the extent to how good of jobs women can get … and how stable their jobs are is another issue.
Except for a few fields, the glass ceiling is still rather low in many many companies, women are still routinely fired/pushed out/encouraged to quit when they give birth or sometimes when they even become pregnant, and the childcare options are such that it is sometimes impossible for women to continue working because there is simply nobody to take care of the children. I do know of women who have left Korea because of these kinds of issues and lack of opportunities in the workplace, and it is one reason why again, I think it is easier for many Korean women to marry an expat and move abroad. For the white Western woman who is staying here, she has to worry about gender discrimination in the workplace plus the added issue that she does not have her own family here to support and help her during pregnancy, childbirth, and child care issues. People often move to a country to ‘start a better life’ – and for some people, especially those from South East Asian countries and China, Korea is a better life in terms of standard of living. That is a contributing factor to the number of immigrant brides from these countries. Whether or not they find happiness and opportunity in Korea, there is a strong perception amoung these women that they will have a better life here.
Conversely, when I talk to my friends who have an 18 month mostly-paid maternity leave in Canada, who can go back to their jobs with no questions asked/no promotions derailed, when their husbands come home at supper time every night and have an opportunity to take paternal leave (and take it!), I have to wonder if my options are such that I have a ‘better life here.’ I don’t know the answer to this yet. It is a constant and sincere struggle that I am working through. It’s also a factor of how involved a Korean husband can be in his family life. So many Korean female friends have told me that they love it that the Western boyfriend/fiancé/husband comes home at a reasonable hour every night, doesn’t have to drink with his boss, and has enough time to be a child care partner. I’ve discussed the salaryman ‘work’ culture at length here, and I do believe that when white Western women look ahead to their futures, and they think about the husband who regularly comes home at 2am drunk…or maybe not at all, that it is a serious issue in determining future happiness and marital stability simply because this kind of husband is not the ideal or even reality for most Western middle class women. Really, when you look at the reality of the salaryman in Korea, you have to ask yourself – ‘Is my life really better here?’
In addition, as a foreigner there are fewer employment opportunities unless you are in particular fields. Yes, if you are a white somewhat normal English-speaker, finding a teaching job is the easiest thing in the world here with a spousal (F2) visa. In some cases entrepreneurs can be very successful with the right niche market or contacts, and some professionals like lawyers or consultants can find good work. However, the breadth of opportunities is severely severely limited outside of these spheres to foreign women, in part because of language, Confucian culture, gender discrimination, and the fact that many companies are industries are not prepared to have a foreigner – and especially a foreign woman – in their workplace. Yes, it can be hard for a white Western male trying to break into a ‘real’ job in journalism, advertising, etc. but this situation is magnified as a woman unless you come here with a multinational corporation. Some of these issues (language for example), are ‘our fault,’ but others will take a great social shift to rectify. One Korean friend for example, works in Canada at a clothing retailer. While it is not the best job in the world, and certainly not a high level position, the fact that Canadian companies routinely hire people from different ethnic backgrounds without batting an eye means that she has a wide range of options while she studies/works toward higher level work (while in a field she actually likes). In Korea, a white Western woman can secure a well-paying teaching job, but if she has an interest in a different field (outside of entertainment but only if she is a petite blonde), her opportunities will probably be much more limited.
So what I want to say here is that there are innumerous reasons why people meet, date, and decide to marry. However, there are many external factors which make it harder or easier for these relationships to develop and progress, and I think that some of these larger ‘life’ factors are stacked against the white Western female/Korean male couples. Yes, society is generally against the idea of a white Western male/Korean female couple, but the other social factors are much more difficult for the opposite paired couple to overcome. It’s not the ‘fault’ of any particular culture or practice, but it’s a combination which tends to discourage or limit white Western women and Korean men en masse from entering into long-term relationships leading to marriage.