Posts Tagged ‘Confucianism’

I love this. Really love this.

A report from a state-run think tank said yesterday that an open attitude toward extramarital pregnancies and unmarried couples living together might be necessary to overcome Korea’s chronically low birthrate.

Yes, really it is that easy. Just accept single mothers. The government just has to accept single mothers and all will be grand. Society will follow without a peep. Companies will magically no longer fire women for being single mothers. Schools and companies will no longer discriminate against children without a father in the picture. All playground teasing will stop. There will be lots of social services and programs available to women supporting their children on one income. And the Ministry of Family Affairs and Women will atone for proclaiming single mothers have ‘low education levels [and] impulsive sexual drives.’ (or here) Yes. Puppy dogs and rainbows my friends.

There’s so much to be annoyed at with this ‘new’ idea.

1. There are no social systems set up to help women in this situation. Well…there are….and they are called adoption agencies. And then we export children because social taboos prevent many Koreans from accepting the idea of adoption (which in turn makes more money for adoption agencies because international adoptions cost more than local ones). [Edit: Please see my response to ‘sky’ below. I do not mean international adoption is wrong but rather that the government needs to provide real options for women instead of exporting children as the only solution to this issue]

2. There are no concrete plans for how to make single motherhood more socially acceptable OR and this is a big one – how to hold men accountable for their role in bringing a child into the world and providing for them in every way.

3. This idea reeks of that one side of the pro-life movement which is only pro-life in getting the child out of the womb. After that these individuals, religious groups, lobbyists, and government officials not only abandon women and children, but scapegoat them as the cause of all social problems and decline in public morality. The think tank in this article seems only to care about single mothers in that they can cosmetically change the birth rate statistics without caring about single mothers as women who face an incredible amount of obstacles once a child is born.

4. This solution doesn’t address any of the underlying reasons why we have such a low birth rate.

Why are women not getting married?

Why do career women not want to have children?

How can the government get companies to actually respect the laws guaranteeing maternity and paternity leave?

How, in a country that prides itself in ‘caring for family’ so much, can we get companies to be family friendly?

Maybe those issues are the real reasons why our birth rate is so low.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for single mothers getting respect and for their children to be accepted in Korean society. But making them the saviours of our birth rate is not the way to do it. Single mothers are neither the cause of societal woes nor the grand solution.

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It’s that time of year again – the time of year where Mr. Lee spends hours and days and whole weekends and really, an entire month locked away in his work or home office putting together a mammoth business plan for the new year which will be promptly scrapped and rewritten come January when a new boss comes in and wants to place his own mark on the team.

Mr. Lee has to put something in English in the plan – usually a bunch of catchy marketing phrases or concepts. Now, Confucius only knows why this is a requirement…Mr. Lee is of course the only one in his team or even department who can actually speak English. But goodness – it’s gotta be there for sophistication purposes.

And like every year, the native English speaking wife gets roped into the making and perfecting of this part of the business plan – which starts out fun in a ‘ooo I get to be creative and use my mother tongue abilities to help my husband at work’ sort of way, but quickly turns into sighs.

You see – this is the only part of his life where my husband turns into ‘that ajosshi.’  You know the one right? The one who commissioned his native English speaking underlings to come up with exciting new KTO come to Korea slogans – then smiled and nodded when they gave their presentations – and once they left the room stroked out their versions and wrote ‘Korea Sparkling,’ ‘Korea Be Inspired’ and ‘Visit Korea Year 2010-2012’. Or ‘that ajosshi’ that brought you the café Sand and Food or……

I know it might not have been an ajosshi – it might have been a truly powerful ajumma…but the point is, there is ‘that person’ in the hierarchy who desperately wants to use English to look super snazzy and chic and also wants to show how globalized or urbane X company / restaurant / conglomerate is by using ‘English’…but also steadfastly holds onto Konglish as the ‘true English.’ And ‘that person’…at least for the last several weeks has been my husband.

Our recent conversations have gone something like this:

Msleetobe: This sentence is …. interesting ….but there is no verb in it.

Mr. Lee: ‘Feedback’ is the verb.

Msleetobe: No – ‘feedback’ in this case is a noun. You can give feedback or provide feedback or receive feedback, but the customer can’t feedback you.

Mr. Lee: But we use feedback as a verb. And Koreans love this word. We HAVE to use it in this business plan.

Msleetobe: ‘Feedback’ is a noun. If you want to use it, just add a verb and you’ll be fine.

Mr. Lee: Okay, what is the verb form of ‘feedback?’

Msleetobe: In this case there is no verb form. You’ll have to add a verb.

Mr. Lee: But that will be too long. Why can’t I just use ‘feedback’ as a verb?

Msleetobe: Because it is a noun. Why don’t you use another word as a verb in place of ‘feedback?’

Mr. Lee: But I have to use ‘feedback.’ Really…l can’t use it as a verb here? Maybe I’ll just use it.

Msleetobe: Look…You have two choices – if you want correct English you have to change it. If you want Konglish, then do whatever you want – but if that’s the case, why am I here?

(Both of us sulk)

And like ‘feedback’ there are always other words in the mix that ‘HAVE’ to be used because they are ‘in’ words in the world of Konglish, and you just aren’t cool if you’re not using them.

Another example:

Mr. Lee: What’s the word for a program or way to solve some specific problem with an existing program?

Msleetobe: If you are talking about technology, people often say ‘fix.’

Mr. Lee: Oh good, so I can call this part ‘ABC Shooting Fix.’

Msleetobe: Just ‘ABC Fix’.

Mr. Lee: Not ‘Shooting Fix’? Like troubleshooting and fix and…’Shooting Fix!!!’

Msleetobe: Nope – just ABC Fix is good.   

Mr. Lee: But we like ‘shooting.’ It makes sense. And we HAVE to use ‘shooting.’

Msleetobe: It sounds like you are shooting…killing the fix you have created.

Mr. Lee: But…’Shooting Fix!’…so cool! Fun!

Msleetobe: Once again…do whatever you want. But…why am I here?

(As I am typing, Mr. Lee just walked in the door from work and one of the first things out of his mouth was ‘My team boss really loved shooting fix! He said it was very easy to understand! But that other section we discussed…the one with the word ‘spearhead?’…my team boss doesn’t understand that. He thinks ‘spear’ sounds too much like ‘appear.’)

Like I say over and over again in these conversations, I really could care less what he chooses to go with. It’s for a team where the Konglish ability is high and the English ability is low. Plus, the business plan will be scrapped in a few months time anyway, and no customer will actually see the business plan although they will experience some differences when/if any part of the plan is actually implemented. But it just continually amazes me why – other than the fact that I am the native English speaking wife – I need to be consulted at all when everything I say will be disregarded in favour of those with a PhD in Konglish. However, it does give me great insight into the inner workings of the ajosshi mind…although I’m not sure why I want to know the inner workings of that mind.

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Someone on another forum linked this post from Ask a Korean. We’ve just finished celebrating Chuseok, when many people still perform an ancestral memorial ritual which includes preparing, organizing, and offering traditional food and dishes in a prescribed way to the ancestors, and this picture is making the rounds and causing some controversy.


Is it acceptable for the food prescribed by tradition, which is painstakingly prepared by women, sometimes for days, to be altered due to time constraints, life constraints, contemporary culture, or just based on the ancestors’ preferences?

I’ve said before that my husband’s family does not participate in this ritual, and all things considered, they are not a strict Confucian family. I’m also not Korean. So maybe I should keep my mouth shut on this issue. But I do have two degrees in religious studies – one relating to death rituals, have travelled to countless religious sites throughout Asia, joined a ritual-loving church after realizing I heart ritual, and have had personal experiences with death rituals in my family…so based on those credentials, I’m going to offer my opinion.

One phrase I truly hate is ‘preserving tradition.’ We preserve dead things. When a cucumber is plucked from the ground, we stuff it in a jar, add all sorts of preserving agents, seal up the jar and put it on the shelf until we are ready to consume it. My grandmother was a great canner when she lived on the farm, and I have very vivid memories of shelves and shelves of canned fruits and vegetables in her vast cellar. They are yummy memories, but they are memories of dead fruits and vegetables which need additives because they have been plucked from their life sources.

Tradition lives. Tradition changes. It does. There is no point going into all the various examples now, but those things you truly love – your religious ceremonies, your family Christmas traditions, your traditional forms of clothes, your ‘family values’…all of those things that we label as ‘traditional’ have changed over time. They incorporate many traditions, and times, and personalities, and realities. When we have to preserve tradition, tradition is in trouble. When we live our traditions, and those traditions meet our needs and speak to where we are in our world and our lives, then we are honouring our ancestors, our faith groups, our cultures, and ourselves.

Before getting back to the specific Confucian ritual, I want to share some stories and pictures of my experiences with evolving offerings.

When I was in university, I did some field research at a dharma centre where they had regular rituals, and we were often there for those rituals. Usually, there was some mention of hungry ghosts or preta, probably the saddest beings in the Buddhist worldview. Hungry ghosts are insatiable beings with miniscule mouths, long thin necks, and massive bellies. They epitomize our cravings – the same cravings which prevent us from leaving samsara. One time when it was close to Valentine’s Day, the centre put out cinnamon hearts and gummie bears. These we offered to the hungry ghosts. Of course we did. Of course Canadian hungry ghosts around Valentine’s Day would be desiring our cinnamon hearts. Are hungry ghosts only to be found in Tibet?

But that’s a ‘Western’ example. We Westerners are always trying to mess up tradition right? What are Asians doing?

This picture is from a famous temple in Hong Kong. It is an offering made under a tablet remembering all the ‘unloved and uncared for’ souls in Hong Kong. I’m pretty sure Tiger Beer, being from Singapore and all, was not the usual beverage of the Hong Kong ancestors, but blessings to whomever put out the food and remembered those who have no one to remember them.

This picture is from a temple in Korea…and yes…those are Chupa Chups. Specifically, a bouquet of Chupa Chups!

From Inwangsan, a Shaman hill in central Seoul. These offerings are made for the mountain spirits.

And from a different place on Inwangsan – note the package. Nobody made this specifically for the spirits, but they were bought and offered for those spirits.

From our recent trip to Bali: this is a traditional offering which literally litters the sidewalks, and can be found in front of every tiny roadside shrine. But I don’t want you to notice the packaged candy. I want you to notice the bits of rice and meat being offered. When we made and offered ours after preparing our food at our Balinese cooking school, we offered bits of what we had made and were about to consume. In other words, while this is a ‘traditional’ offering, it is made based on what the family is about eat for the rest of the day. The offering is tightly related to the everyday lives of those making it.

And then the dogs, birds, ants, and creepy crawlers of all kinds come and consume the offerings.

Veering off from food for a moment, these are the mizuko dressed and sitting at the feet of Jizo, the bodhisattva for children in Japan. Yes, children, but more specifically for aborted, stillborn, or miscarried fetuses. There are several rituals for these potential beings in Japan, and part of the rituals is offering small toys like pinwheels. I’ve seen much more contemporary and trendy toys too, but I didn’t take any pictures of those.

And in Singapore’s Chinatown, you can buy all the paper convertibles, iphone, Rolexes, and apple computers to burn for your dead loved ones. In fact, in New York, a storekeeper got in trouble for the paper luxury brand purses he was selling for funeral rites. The authorities were worried about copyright infringement you see.

And not offering but image related, there’s a beautiful church called Saenamteo in Seoul that everyone should visit if they like to pilgrimage. Not only is the altar space decorated in a stone Koreanized rendering of Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints, but also, when I was there in 2007, they had a biracial rendering of the Holy Family. Alas, when I went back in 2008, the Holy Family was decidedly white, but maybe it has changed now. Anyway, Jesus doesn’t need to be white, and Jesus doesn’t need to be 1st century Middle Eastern looking either.

Finally, when it came to my own father’s funeral, cremation, and internment, we had a very lovely funeral director. He gave us the urn options, and then turned to us and said, ‘But really…most people choose to forgo the cost of an urn unless they plan to display the ashes in their home. We had one family who chose to bury the ashes in…his coffee thermos.” It seems the man was a coffee addict and would have liked nothing more than to be close to his coffee in death. It was then that it became very clear to us that we would bury dad’s ashes in his tool box. He was a welder at work and a woodworker in his spare time. He did handy work for the church, the farm where we rode, the grandparents. He also had a thing about people not replacing his tools after using them. His coworkers joked at the funeral that after his death they went around and made sure all of his tools were accounted for and in their right place. They didn’t want to be haunted. The neighbourhood knew him as the man who was always outside doing yard work and fixing things. Everyone understood exactly why he went into the ground in his toolbox. And when I carried what remained of him in the box and placed him in the ground, it was an honour, and it was the best way to honour him.

Now you might say, but Msleetobe, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and Canada are different countries with different cultures. Don’t conflate them. But I’m trying to show the ways in which different cultures and traditions are responding to contemporary life and circumstances. But Msleetobe, Confucianism is a very different – and much more rigid – tradition than Balinese Hinduism, Daoism, mainstream Western Protestantism, or recent Jizo rituals. Yes, it is a unique tradition as all traditions are unique, but it is a tradition, and there are similar patterns between religions, similar impulses, similar meanings, similar yearnings to do similar things. Or, you might argue, maybe the uncared for souls of Hong Kong, or the foreign tourists who died on the beaches of Thailand because of the tsunami, are outside of the regular religious traditions and social systems, but if your dad really loved pizza, would you deny him that when you remember him because it goes against the tradition we currently observe?

Of course there are other issues – did the ancestor in question like pizza? Or is it a quick and easy way to fill the table when you didn’t have enough time, energy, or motivation to make the traditional dishes? Is the pizza placement done out of care or out of carelessness? Only that individual family can know the answer to that question. But in a time when many families are buying the necessary food, are not growing their own fruit because they live in an apartment in the middle of a metropolis, or prepare and perform the ritual with a great deal of han in their hearts because of the sexist aspects of the preparation, family turmoil, or unresolved issues with the family member being honoured, I’m not sure we should be judging. Sure it’s easier to judge the family who chose to buy FOREIGN! food and place it on the table because it is a highly visible sign of evolving tradition, but that doesn’t mean that there are not more subtle and less visible ways tradition is changing, evolving, and in some families, fading away. It will be interesting to see as younger people die who have traveled more, acquired different tastes, married people from other cultures, and grown up in a Korea bursting with food from around the world, how the traditional table continues to evolve and change. But no, in this bloggers’ view, a tradition that speaks to and responds to the needs of the people who are practicing is not a bad tradition. It is in fact, the way of tradition.

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You may have heard the recent twitter in cyberspace about the ‘foreign girls in bikinis’ along Cheongyecheon, a stream that runs through the middle of Seoul. Some citizens, netizens, and media outlets were up in arms because of the ‘inappropriate’ clothing of the women, specifically the one woman in a bikini top. According to some, bikinis are ‘not yet acceptable’ in Korean society while others have stated that wearing a bikini top might go against the ordinance that states Cheongye Stream is supposed to be a ‘wholesome’ place.

I was in a discussion last week about this topic with a group of foreign women on an online forum I am part of, and a few people mentioned that non citizens should stick to the norms of the society they are living in. True (mostly). If I were to live in a burqa clad nation, I would probably be sporting mine with the rest of the women or at least modifying my appearance to cover a great deal of my body. But is it true that the bikini is a foreign piece of clothing in Korea? A short scroll down to the bottom of the article I linked shows Korean women in a bikini and a Korean woman in a sports bra. A trip to EMart this past weekend to pick out Mr. Lee’s bathing trunks for our upcoming trip to Bali (yes!!!!) revealed a whole aisle of bikinis for purchase (or is that one of those ‘Love Motels are only for foreigners’ kind of argument….aka ‘the bikini aisle at the EMart Msleetobe is the only foreigner to shop at has all those bikinis just for Msleetobe’ sort of argument?) A quick perusal of my Korean friends’ Facebook photos shows a whole lotta Korean women in bikinis frolicking about in Korea. A scan of my classroom this past semester saw a whole lot of strapless, see through, and bra strap revealing tops. And on Tuesday at iPark mall’s water area in the centre of Seoul, my friend R reported that she saw 3 Korean bikini clad woman, one in a string bikini with a daughter in a bikini.

Then what about the ‘wholesome’ nature argument? That might have some legs to stand on. It’s true that women don’t regularly go walking around central Seoul in bikinis. But these women don’t seem to be doing that either. Is Cheongyecheon a beach? No, but it is a rest area which people often use like a stream in a natural setting (I live nearby. I’ve seen it). If bikinis are popping up at Everland, the beach, ads on the subway (saw those on Saturday), or daytime non cable tv, is it a stretch to say that Cheongyecheon is really so different?

I’m also reminded about something Mr. Lee and I observed about 2 years ago. Until very recently, Mr. Lee, a man of a slightly older generation, would not let me kiss him in public. Not a peck. Not a cheek kiss. Nothing. He said PDAs were ‘unacceptable’ in Korean culture. It infuriated me as only a complete ban on something can. So we were walking along Cheongyecheon one day killing time before a movie, when I noticed a couple completely making out in front of us. I poked Mr. Lee and said ‘look what they are doing??!!! Why can’t I kiss you on the cheek if there is tongue action going on right in front of us?’ At that moment, the guy stopped kissing the girl and bent down in front of her in a proposal type stance, but instead of asking for her hand in marriage, he took off her shoe, stuck his nose deep inside of it, and took a nice long whiff. Mr. Lee, knowing how I’m the anti anti anti foot fetish girl (touch my feet and I’ll break your nose with one swift kick), said, ‘Do you want me to do that too?’  Yes, sometimes things like that happen down at the Stream.

These issues come up periodically. Foreigners drunk on the subway! Foreigners go to night clubs! Foreign teachers drink! I myself got caught up in the big visa change of 2007-8 when the AIDS/drug tests + first round of police checks were first haphazardly introduced. Because I was one of the first people having to go through the new process (having given up my one job and trying to get a visa for my next over the Christmas break), I went through a lot of nonsense that a lot of other people thankfully did not have to do through. When trying to figure out what kind of health check I should get before coming to Korea/if I should get a health check before Korea (I was assured by immigration that I had to get it before, and the when I got to Korea was told only a Korean one would do), I was initially told that I would be checked for ‘alcohol consumption’ and on a questionnaire I later filled out, I believe I had to state whether or not I was an alcoholic. This ‘check’ amused me to no end. I do not believe anyone should be drinking and teaching. I do not believe foreigners should be making asses of themselves in Korea. But but but. Goodness this is a drinking culture, and it is a culture that has not fully come to terms with the concept of ‘alcoholism.’ Of course the alcohol test – whatever that was going to be …a breathalyser? – that was supposed to show if you were an ‘alcoholic’ never went through, but I just imagined some newbie being forced to go out drinking soju shots with the boss the night before, tested for alcohol consumption and being sent home for ‘being a corrupting influence in Korea.’

Mr. Lee was joking as we walked to a first birthday party last weekend that Koreans were very sober people. For my part, I pointed out the tables of Korean men drinking makgeolli before noon at two separate convenience stores along the way. Then beside us at the birthday party, there was a group of 60-something guys who had a pile of bottles under the table. One of the men started drunkenly shouting during the MC portion of the event that the baby in question looked like her grandfather not her father. Yes. Very very sober. And then today as I was walking home at 4 pm, I saw the incident that spurred me to write this post. There was an older Korean man who had pissed himself sitting on the side of the road propped up by a police officer. He was then loaded into a police car. I was actually surprised that they were doing something about him. Perhaps he was scaring the pregnant and TTC women going into the fertility clinic where he was sitting? My very first Buddha’s Birthday parade, there was an older drunken man literally trying to throw himself onto the floats. He was ‘baby sat’ by a very awkward and uncomfortable looking 18 year old doing his military service, but he was not arrested or taken away. In fact, older women were egging him on and parents were holding up their kids in order to see the spectacle. Ah sobriety!

This is not to say that public drunkenness, inappropriate clothing in inappropriate places (if that is what really happened…I would argue they were being appropriate), or any other ‘bad behaviour’ should be acceptable when foreigners do it. But if when in Korea do as the Koreans do is the mode foreigners are supposed to live under, it’s not surprising that sometimes foreigners follow the crowd. I would hope that visitors and non citizens behave a bit better than their hosts in all contexts simply because that is the most prudent and perhaps the wisest course of action. But but but……I see nothing unusual in a lot of actions deemed ‘corrupting’ in light of the larger Korean society.

Anyway, what I am really interested in is the foundational reason for this periodic outrage. Is it just because it is foreigners who are doing something? Do we just see the anti-foreigner voices come out now and then to denounce anything with a foreign face on it? Or, is it because sometimes a foreign face doing something a Korean does highlights an uncomfortable truth about an aspect of Korean culture. When grandpa is drunk and saying inappropriate things or passed out in the corner of the room, we can just laugh it off and say ‘oh grandpa’, or we can close our eyes and pretend it isn’t happening because under Confucianism elders are always right. But then when a foreigner does the same thing, the problems with that action are much more glaring. Or maybe, a foreign body allows a space for discussion to happen where it would not happen if all the actors were Koreans. Suddenly something many people feel uncomfortable with can be talked about but only if it becomes a ‘foreign’ issue not a Korean issue. (Obviously I’m talking Korea here because I live in Korea, but I think this happens in every culture – visible Muslims seem to be a big one in the West these days.)

As for the bikini issue, one of the women on the forum I was on brought up a fantastically amazing point when we were talking about the prevalence of scantily clad doumi girls outside newly opened businesses, K-pop stars, and breast implant ads. To paraphrase she said, it only seems to be okay for women to dress in less when they are being paid. To choose to do it yourself seems to be the problem.  Back to me again, does Confucianism, capitalism, sexism, and/or the patriarchy extend that far? Oh, I bet it does.

In closing, I’m not saying non Koreans should do whatever they see Koreans doing good or bad. God gave you a brain and common sense. Use it. Hopefully in all contexts we can rise above the lowest expressions of culture. And certainly non Koreans should be mindful of the dress standards that they see around them and note how there might be different perceptions of appropriateness or even contradictory ones from their own culture. But ohhhh I wish we would stop with the ‘look at the bad foreigner corrupting our culture’ line no matter what culture we are talking about. A foreign face just highlights what is already there. Girls are wearing bikinis and dressing for themselves. That’s far more a product of the Korean media, consumer culture, and a rebellion against traditional norms than it is the evil corrupting influences of one girl lying beside a stream. And people drink. A lot. In the daytime quite often. That’s a product of stress, Confucianism, and a myriad of issues that have everything to do with contemporary Korea and almost nothing to do with what an English teacher does on his night off. The conversation needs to focus on those root issues (not who is doing it), and people need to be honest about the changes and/or the failings of their own cultures.

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There’s an article in The Korea Times today that actually has a few meaningful things to say about paternity leave in this country.

 I didn’t even dare to ask for a three-day unpaid vacation following my daughter’s birth.

That’s right, many fathers don’t feel secure enough in their jobs to take off three days for the birth of their own child.  I’m not sure if this is the same everywhere, but the way it works at Mr. Lee’s company is that you technically get three days off – but weekends are included in these three days.  So, say your wife goes into labour on Friday afternoon (and you choose to be with her during labour), you are expected to be back at work on Monday bright and early because hey – you got Saturday and Sunday ‘off’ right?  During my time in Korea, six of my Western coworkers (all male) have had children born here.  I can’t exactly remember each individual situation, but I don’t think most of them took three full working days off either.  In fact, one coworker elected to come to work while his wife was in labour because he was worried about raising the ire of our managers.  Conversely, another coworker’s wife scheduled her C-section to coincide with a 5 day public holiday so that her husband could take more time off without upsetting management.  I know there are many factors which make the C-section rate incredibly high here, but I have often wondered if there are any stats available for how many women schedule their surgeries for Fridays or the day before public holidays for just this purpose. 

“Korea has established a range of effective policies aimed at boosting its birthrate, including the provision of paternity leave. Its policies are on par with those of advanced countries. But the problem is that we do not put them into practice,” said Lee Sam-sik, director of the Low Fertility and Population Aging Division at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.

This is such an important point.  So often I read about how laws need to be changed, but in the case of parental leave, Korea already has laws in place.  The problem with paternity leave and women being fired/pushed out/having their lives made a living hell at work for taking leave or even being pregnant, is that employers do not follow the law.  The company is first, and more importantly, the boss’ feelings come first.  If the boss is ‘traditional’ or ‘conservative’ (and because the boss is always older, he – usually he – often is), the idea that a woman would even come back to work, or that a man might want to spend time as a primary caregiver is often a ridiculous notion.  In this society, the law is not as important as the individual boss’s feelings on the matter.

I plan to bring the NYT article on Swedish SAHDs to my seminar class for our parenthood module in a couple of months. The most important thing I got from that article is that if gender equality and families are important to society, the government does not only need to offer companies and workers incentives to take parental leave, the government also has to make disincentives for men not taking time off or companies making work environments which discourage taking leave.  I can’t imagine how that would happen in Korea, but it would be interesting to see how businesses might change if they or their workers were penalized for not encouraging both parents to take some time off following the birth of a child or in the first few years of a child’s life.

Which leads to the last important point brought up in the article.

“CEOs should change their perception toward childbirth and childcare. It is their duty as Korean citizens to help increase birthrates and nurture future human resources…”

Korea’s ‘Miracle of the Han’ – or rise from one of the most destitute countries in the world after the Korean War, to one of the major players in the 21st century – came about by 1) damn hard work on the backs of Korean workers and 2) creating a mindset where working for and loyalty to a Korean company was linked to raising the fortunes of the nation.  I personally do not want to see an enormous increase in the birth rate because I think we are overpopulated.  However, the birth rate does need to rise to a certain degree, and more importantly, more emphasis needs to be placed on the well-being of family.  Work is important and Korean companies are important for the good of the Korean nation.  However, too much has been sacrificed in family life for the good of the company (because the good of the company was supposed to improve the wellbeing of the nation).  The mindset has to change.  Children are the future of the country, and there needs to be a better balance between work and family life.  If the discourse can change from the good of the company = the good of the nation, to the company which fosters a family friendly environment = the good of the nation, I think we could go a long way in solving many pressing issues in our country.

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I started teaching an intensive non credit winter program today, and I was reminded of one important fact about teaching adults in Korea.

We don’t have the proverbial elephant in the room, our issue is the ajosshi in the classroom.

At 9am sharp, I called out the students’ names, and all but one were there sitting alert in their desks. We discussed the expectations for the oral communication part of the course, briefly went through the concept of follow up questions, and practiced a few as a group. Then, I split them into small groups to interview each other and report back by the end of the class about the three most fascinating pieces of information they had gleaned about their partner from their discussions. I was pleasantly surprised by their level of English as I roamed around the classroom and excited by their willingness to talk freely with each other despite their lack of vocabulary and not knowing each other previously. I was dreaming of all the things this quiet but forthcoming group of level ones could accomplish over the next 5 weeks when, at 10 minutes until the end of class, the door burst open and an ajosshi strolled in. He didn’t seem the least bit apologetic for coming in 40 minutes late. He didn’t seem concerned about being the only one who didn’t have a textbook. And he certainly made himself right at home in the room strolling around and spreading out his things at a few different desks before settling right at the front in a desk surrounded by no one and stared at the board.

I broke away from one of the small groups I was talking to, in order to ensure that he really was supposed to be in the class and to direct him to join a group. He nodded in understanding, so I went back to finish the conversation with the other group, only to look behind me a few minutes later to notice that he was still in the same spot facing away from the rest of the class and discussions. So I returned to him, thinking that he had not understood me. He gruffly replied that he wanted to check out my stuff, and I noticed that he had taken my textbook and was paging through it and was reading over a syllabus he had taken from another student. When he seemed satisfied with my syllabus, he got up to join the group I had recommended, but as one might expect, the easy going banter which had been going on for 20 minutes between the two other students halted, and the students’ bodies noticeably stiffened.

I should say before I go further, that I enjoy teaching conversation to groups of ajosshis. (Writing is another matter). They’ve had more life experience than your average freshman, and they are more confident in their discussions. And of course, I myself am married to an ajosshi and hang out with his ajosshi friends, so I have a lot of experience talking to middle age men. I should note that I think there is a difference in men in their mid 30s to late 40s and in their 50s. The ones who hover just below to just over 50 do tend to be a bit more difficult, but I have taught many older men, and they can be fun. When they are in their element, and being their own culturally normative people with other people of the same age, cultural differences based on age are easier to accept and embrace because things are working in their ‘proper order.’ However, age differences not just age matter in Korea. So when you have 8 university students in their early 20s and one late 40s/early 50s ajosshi in the same class, you have a problem.

It’s extraordinarily difficult for women who take time off of work to have children to re-enter the workforce because although times are changing, most companies still associate promotion, positions, and power with age. If you are just joining a company at 35 in a junior position, you are working alongside 25 year olds at the same position according to the company – except you aren’t socially at the same level according to Confucianism. That means two coworkers of what amounts to a ‘radically’ different ages in Korea have to work together, but at the same time, one person has to speak differently, listen differently, and share their thoughts differently in deference to the other person. Age difference undermines group coherence because two people of the same company position cannot share ideas, gripes, and strategies freely. People of various age differences absolutely work together in the same team in companies, but their ages are usually connected to their position in the company hierarchy and thus this is the way in which Confucian values and modern company stratification are brought into harmony.

But, what makes the classroom situation so much more complicated is that the 20 year old and the 50 year old are paying the same amount of money. It is money that makes the hogwan so different from the public school system. Money radically shifts the Confucian hierarchy of teacher and student (or sometimes teacher, paying parent, and younger student). Teachers cannot but help to submit to money because paying parents or older students vote with their registration and their tuition. So with this 20/50 divide, you can see this whole mess of realities and expectations going through the students’ minds. There’s an older man in the room. We should ‘respect’ older people in Korea, which traditionally means actually listening to, abiding to, and submitting to their opinions. We have to temper our speech – actually change our Korean speech, we have to be careful of our opinions, we have to fit our opinions to those of our elders…and so the free flowing conversation has to be redirected to what the ajoshhi wants to talk about, to where the ajosshi wants it to go. And yet….and yet….the 20 year old has paid the exact same tuition, has registered for the class with the same expectation that he or she will be able to have the same amount of practice as everyone else, and the same amount of time to state opinions and have words corrected. There’s a disconnect here.

I ran into this problem in a big way in my second month of teaching in Korea. But this time it was a 20 year old female student vs. a 40 year old woman in an advanced reading/writing class. We were discussing relationships between older and younger people in response to what we had been reading. The 40 year old said that younger people were disrespectful toward their elders. The younger girl waited her turn and then said politely (in an English sense) that she thought sometimes people made mistakes or were only thinking about themselves, but that overall most younger people respected their elders. The 40 year immediately retorted that the younger girl had disagreed with her and thus showed disrespect. She then told the younger girl to never disagree with her again. There was…a dead silence in the room. The 40 year old is not actually in the wrong in terms of how older people often interpret the word ‘respect’ and in how it has been often interpreted in the past (although she was far far far more forceful about this position than most other people I’ve encountered). And the young woman was right in terms of how the younger generation understands respect. But in class…there was a clash. All the younger students looked immediately frightened. Could they not share their opinions anymore? Should they just stop coming to class? (Mr. Lee often reports that younger classmates in his conversation classes drop after being paired with older, more Confucian, and more dominating classmates). Everyone’s head swung toward me. What was the 25 year old teacher going to say?

I tried to be diplomatic. Yes, Korea has a proud Confucian tradition and value system I said, and perhaps outside of class we should follow this system; however, inside class (and while speaking English), everyone had the right to speak their opinions. The 40 year old had this look of pure hatred on her face, and she tore out of the classroom, found the 60-ish American head teacher, and pled her case. He, of course, sided with me, but it was my very first realization of this complicated dynamic, and how difficult it can be as a younger female (and expat!) teacher to juggle all of these different expectations.

I’m not sure what to do about the current situation. After 7 hours of hanging out with all 20-somethings today, the older student might decide that this program is not really meant for a person like him. Being the first class in the morning, he may always be quite late and thus just a student I have to find a spot for on occasion without worrying about the overall class dynamic. Conversely, he might be an alert student sitting upright in his desk every morning at 9am. Or, he might turn out to be a terribly open minded and generous older man who uses his age position to encourage the students…it’s happened….a few times….We’ll have to see. I do have 5 years more of age on my face, a ring on my finger marking me as an ajumma – a young one – but still an ajumma which gives me a bit more power – and I have much more experience in terms of knowing how to negotiate intergenerational dynamics in the Korean classroom. And if all else fails, there’s the 40ish American head of program who has a Korean FIL who can be brought in if there’s another incident like the one in my first experience in Korea.

But there’s no doubt that the ajosshi in the classroom – and the strange ‘equalizing’ effects of money in the form of tuition – make for an interesting dynamic in the Korean classroom which is perhaps indicative of the larger changes happening in this society.

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This is a follow up post wherein I reevaluate my thoughts on this matter

I was brushing my teeth after I wrote that last post, and I started thinking further about this issue of dependence. Maybe it’s not just a ‘foreigner’ thing. I think Korean society is much more about dependence on others and interconnectedness than Canadian society. I’m talking about systematic expectations and norms of dependence here.

You are rarely your name in Korea. Strangely, I’m known as my real name among Mr. Lee’s friends and my Korean name among his parents. I should be known as Mr. Lee’s wife among his friends and parents, but for some reason – probably because I’m outside of the norms of the Korean hierarchy, I started off as being my own name and it stuck. Of course, absolutely no one – not even my inlaws know my last name! I don’t even think they comprehend my first (English) name let alone my last. But I digress. If I were Korean, I would be introduced (and called) as ‘senior,’ or ‘junior,’ or, when I have children, as ‘___’s mom.’ My identity in these situations would be context dependent on who I am with and my relationship to that person. My identity would not be in and of myself.

And have you ever looked at a Korean job application? I haven’t seen one in a while, but for fun one of my students once brought in a Samsung application. There was a lengthy section where you had to include your parents’ names, their educational backgrounds and occupations. It wasn’t enough that you graduated from Seoul National – they wanted to see if your parents did as well – and if your father worked for a ‘proper’ company or in a ‘proper field.’ Yes, there’s nepotism alive and well in Canada, but by far, you can be a successful person in major companies or fields regardless of who your parents are, or where they studied, or what they do for a living. In Canada, there is by far, much more emphasis placed on your brain, your degree, your work experience, and your individual talents. When I first got to Korea, I thought a chaebol job was a ‘good’ job because it was a recognizable company with a stable (decent) salary, occasional nice bonuses, and a competitive hiring process. Now I realize that it’s also a ‘gift’ to your children because they can later go and put your workplace on their applications and thus be seen as ‘good candidates’ because of this familiar closeness to a ‘good’ company.

I just thought of another example of interdependence, this one regarding age. Even though I’m outside of the hierarchy, and thus can sometimes ‘get away’ with voicing minor complaints or tentatively asking for something directly to a person in a higher authority, for the most part, younger people need to ‘know their place’ and submit to the authority and power of older people (even those who are just a year older). But this situation does not mean that there is no mechanism in place to help you deal with problems (outside of getting drunk and pleading your case with your boss or your father, or asking the higher position person to ‘understand’ you). The mechanism is to get someone who is connected to you – someone with whom you have jeong, or a relationship bond – to plead your case for you. That’s what happened when I wrote this post about my father-in-law playing bad cop with our realtor. We couldn’t negotiate, and we couldn’t press for certain home repairs to take place because doing so as the new tenant (lower position) would have jeopardized our future jeong with the realtor/landlord (in this case basically one in the same as the realtor and landlord were family members and on the same ‘team’). So we got Mr. Lee’s father (as the older and thus more powerful figure), to work out the details for us. And just recently at work, I had a problem student who was trying to get a passing mark even though she had dropped out of my class. As a last resort, she got her department to write me, asking for, what I thought was an inappropriate and (according to the school rules), illegal request. In the past, I would have tried to deal with it myself, but at the last minute, I thought about the FIL/house situation and took the matter to my boss. He, as the older, higher position, and KOREAN worker, got on the phone, bitched the other department out, and solved the matter instantly. I deferred to him – I put myself in a dependent situation with him – but that is the cultural expectation and the social norm here.

So…what I’m trying to work out in my own mind here, is that maybe some of my concerns about my growing dependence on my husband are not so much about my being a non Korean woman in a Korean normative context, but maybe it’s more of a disconnect between what my Canadian cultural expectations and my Korean cultural reality. If I looked ‘looked like a Korean,’ I would still have to defer and put myself in dependent situations. That’s how things work here. Things don’t work well when you try and go out on your own. That’s a good lesson for me in terms of the value of community and relationships – but I still feel an internal resistance to this…’dependification?’ To make up a word.

Hmmmm….I need to reflect on this more.

Maybe I should go brush my teeth again.

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It’s no secret that I struggle with Neo-Confucianism, at least how it is practiced in present day Korea, and I’ve been really fighting it since I’ve gotten back from my trip to Canada this summer.  There’s always a cultural dissonance upon returning to Canada/returning to Seoul, and it seems that this issue is my burden this time around.  I think this time I’ve been having a hard time because there’s been a lot of situations recently where I’ve seen how the inability of younger people to speak the truth and speak up when there is an older person present, causes massive communication problems and ultimately causes so many avoidable problems for relationships at both individual and social levels.  There are some beautiful things about Confucianism, but not when people are being silenced from speaking about what is right simply because they are even 1 year younger. 

But then this happened this weekend…

Backstory – several years ago when I was teaching adults English, a woman (let’s call her ‘Moon’) in her 60s would always show up in the same class.  She’s a bit infamous – she has great pride in her son (a doctor – we heard about that all the time), her past as a school teacher, and the privilege her age affords here in Korea.  All this is fine except that these are the only issues she would ever talk about.  If we were having a conversation about environmentalism, fashion, chocolate, international cuisine…she would always direct the conversation back to herself, and her position as the eldest in the class in combination with her incredibly dominant personality always meant that younger students were silenced and somewhat miserable when they were paired with her.  I only had the fun of teaching her a few times, but other friends had her every single weekend for months.

Now, despite marrying me, Mr. Lee has continued to take English classes when he can on the weekend in part to ‘keep his English up,’ but also because it is one of the only ways he still has as an overworked salaryman of meeting new people on a regular basis.  English class is often a social activity, and this has been an important part of his life for over 10 years. 

Well, this month Mr. Lee again encountered Moon in class, but she was paired for three hours (not a very good teacher in this class), with a mild-mannered salaryman who was quite terrified of her.  And….the topic of discussion was marriage…including a question of international marriage.  I guess at one point the man happened to mention that he would (hypothetically) marry a black woman if he loved her.  Moon went quite nuts over this.  During break, she repeated his comments over and over again in front of the class, telling them that he was disgusting (in front of him), and saying that if he married a black person, he would bring extreme shame to his parents.

Finally Mr. Lee burst out with ‘I am married to a white woman! Did you know that?  And if I can marry a white woman, what is the difference from a black woman if I am in love?  I have met black women who are beautiful…who are smart, so why shouldn’t a Korean man marry such a person?’

Moon is taken aback.  Horrified really (she doesn’t know that this ‘white wife’ used to be her teacher).  She said to Mr. Lee, ‘How do your parents feel?’

‘They’re just happy I found someone,’ replied Mr. Lee.

‘Oh no,’ said Moon.  ‘Deep down they must be deeply ashamed and embarrassed by you.’

Now Mr. Lee is really angry.  Now she has disparaged his wife AND his parents.  ‘You may have been a school teacher at one time,’ he said, ‘but now you are not my teacher, so keep your opinions to yourself!’

Now, if an older Korean read this blog, they would probably be shocked and say that my husband is a rude person who was ‘not raised well’ which is really the ultimate insult here.  And to someone not living in Korea with no Korean connection, this story may seem like a very small thing.  But it’s not…it was a big moment for Mr. Lee, and it’s the first time in a while (remember, I’m neo-Confucian depressed), where I’ve heard such blatant prejudice (from an older person) challenged by a much younger person.  Let’s cut out all this bull shit about ‘it’s not racism, it’s just a cultural thing’ and call it what it is.  Being told you are ‘disgusting’ for (hypothetically!) loving a black person or being told you bring shame to your family (a family you have never ever met!) is unacceptable, and we need more courageous people to directly say so. 

So it goes without saying that right now, I really heart my husband.

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A few weeks ago, I arrived at my designated classroom for class exemption testing with a Starbucks coffee and scone.  My Korean staff liaison took one look at what was in my hand and said, ‘You bought breakfast?  But didn’t you make breakfast for your husband this morning?’ 

Nope.  I am a ‘bad’ Korean wife. Bad bad bad bad.  I do not rise at 5:30 to put rice and side dishes out on the table for my husband, and I do not iron shirts.

I worried endlessly about the division of household chores before Mr. Lee and I married.  Endlessly.  I am on average, a bit more anxious than the average person, but I had good reason to be with the fact that he had never lived on his own before and both statistical and anecdotal evidence (here, here, here) show that Korean men aren’t really that predisposed to housework.  I also had personal experience.  For the four years we dated prior to getting married, Mr. Lee was often at my house.  He often ate at my house, he often used towels at my house, he often drank beer at my house, he had a pair of pjs at my house…but only once or twice did he ever wash dishes, put his wet towel in the washing machine or throw out his beer cans.  He would take the garbage down the stairs when I specifically asked him to on his way out, and near the end he started to a) put his empty wine glass in the sink b) fill up said wine glass with water so the glass wasn’t stained with red wine. Oh, and he changed a light bulb and did a load of towels the day my father died and I had to rush back to Canada.  But he didn’t really take initiative, and despite my best efforts at trying to include him in cooking – even fun cooking like frosting cupcakes – he was completely disinterested in chores at my house.  At this point in our relationship, I was wondering if I hadn’t made an enormous mistake in not requiring him to do more if he wanted to set foot in my house. 

I guess from my perspective, if you are a guest in someone’s house for a few days, it seems strange to engage in any housework, but if you keep returning to the same house week after week, year after year – especially when it is your girlfriend’s house – you should start to at the very least clean up after yourself.  Mr. Lee on the other hand had a very different view.  I don’t think he felt any ownership of his own messes (and boys can be messy!) until we got married and moved in together.  Perhaps it was his once very traditional father telling him during our engagement, ‘You had better start doing some housework…you have a foreign fiancée now…,’ or perhaps it was that he started to feel that it was also his space too…or more than likely he realized that if he wanted to come home to a happy house everyday he would have to start doing things, but he did start pulling his weight around the house.

I’ve always been very North American in that I feel like we should ‘communicate’ openly about our expectations in long discussions about how we both ‘feel.’  Alas, this has never worked for us, and it tends to lead to fights and rants and actual linguistic miscommunication.  What does work is falling into something naturally….So I cook (because the only thing Mr. Lee wants to cook is ramyeon), but I don’t cook breakfast.  I also wash dishes/clean up, wash/hang up/dry the laundry, and I am the primary vacuumer/moper/general bathroom cleaner/cat feeder.  For his part, Mr. Lee takes 100% responsibility for all electronics (mostly because I can’t be bothered to run a virus scan on my computer let alone learn how to hook up surround sound stereo), collects/sorts/disposes of recycling and garbage, irons, cleans his office, is the secondary vacuumer/moper/general bathroom cleaner/cat feeder….and is the head of our mould-free house campaign (something I guess I will have to do a post on at a later date).  The division of labour is a bit traditionally gender-specific, but it also plays to our strengths and weaknesses, and most of all, is based on mutual agreement of things we would actually do.  Now, this does not mean that we haven’t had some problems. 

My mother once told me that my parent’s first marital fight occurred when my father demanded to know why my mother wasn’t ironing his underwear like his mother had done.  Now, at first I mocked this underwear ironing practice, because God knows I never ever ever iron anything let alone something no one else should be seeing wandering around the office.  However, I was later told that pre-washing machine and good soap era, this was a good ‘disease killing’ practice.  However, I think that this story highlights a similar problem Mr. Lee and I encountered when we first moved in together….I am not his mother.  One day, about two weeks into our marriage, he came into the laundry room asking, ‘Where are my underwear?’  I replied that he had a ton of underwear….which ones in particular was he looking for?  Well, he wanted the ones he had worn the day before…..I then inquired (in a bit of a pissy voice I admit) if his mother had washed his dirty laundry every single day so he could have the same pair of underwear or socks or undershirt day after day if that’s what his heart desired.  And the answer appears yes…yes she did.

So we had to have a little chat about that…about how I am not (usually except right now while I’m on vacation) – a housewife.  I actually am away from the house working for 5 or 6 hours a day + marking + prep + meetings.  I’m also not the same woman that his mother is, so I might have a different way of doing things or a different schedule.  

We also had a problem in that while we both have about the same amount of house chores in relation to the time we are at home, my work is ongoing while his is more ‘project’ based.  So, he would do spend 10 hours setting up the ridiculously complex sound system that we have, and (rightly) want some praise for it.  Or, he would be scrubbing mould in the drain that the previous tenants had obviously allowed to sit and fester and want someone to recognize all the work and disgustingness such a job required.  However, when it came to recognition for my constant cooking, washing up, vacuuming, clothes folding, praise was noticeably absent.  Again…all this reminds me of my mother, and how she would throw a fit now and then asking why nobody had thanked her for making a soufflé.  In my six year old mind I would think what I would never dare to say aloud…’you’re a mother…you’re supposed to make me food.’  But now it is all sooo very clear why she would get upset.  Those every day actions which make life normal end up becoming too normal and taken for granted if we don’t recognize them.  And so, when I brought this up, Mr. Lee sat and pondered the issue and finally pronounced that he had been too spoiled by his mother doing things for him all the time – that he too never really questioned the effort and time that needs to go into making a four course meal from scratch or keeping the floors clean.

For my part, my ever-zealous quest for equality sometimes gets the better of me, and I (still) get upset sometimes when I am cooking or reorganizing or scrubbing the floor and Mr. Lee is napping like many salarymen like to do on the weekend (since they work such late hours).  But then I have to remind myself of how I sleep in on Saturdays when Mr. Lee is checking my computer for viruses or updating programs, or how I am playing on said computer while he is cat proofing the cabinets and translating the rice cooker’s Korean directions.  The measure of equality shouldn’t be measured in what we are both contributing at each second, but what we have contributed to our marriage, relationship, and living space as a whole. 

I know (again, based on anecdotal and statistical evidence) that our arrangement is not necessarily common within Korean marriages.  And even though I sometimes hear Western men married to Korean women going on about how much they do in the home, I’m a bit sceptical as they also talk about having to ‘babysit’ their own kids (Although the just-married couples I know tend to be a bit closer to equal in housework).  However, I just wanted to write about our situation because I am often asked about Mr. Lee’s participation in household chores by Koreans and Westerners alike.  I’m not sure how we were able to come to this place naturally, although I do think that except for very abusive male-power situations, women usually set the tone in the house when it comes to housework.  Mr. Lee’s own parents and my paternal grandparents had very patriarchal households in the past, but the rise in the female partner’s empowerment has, over time, led to more sharing and quasi-equality.  Certainly I think the upcoming generation of husbands will have little choice but to take on more of the chore burden with this generation of well educated, increasingly career-orientated women as their brides. Men in Canada didn’t traditionally start doing house chores either until a complicated combination of the women’s liberation movement, an increase in working women, a stronger emphasis on men participating in the home, and economic realities forced change within Canadian homes. 

Therefore, whether or not they were raised in an equal partnership, or whether or not they know how to do chores, Korean men are slowly starting to do more housework, and they are certainly capable of doing the work (at the very least on weekends if they are salarymen).  So I guess the point about explaining how our house works is not to show that we are a poster couple – I have been very clear on shunning this situation in the past – but to say that it is possible for men to share the burden.  Now, when we have kids….I’ll come back and let you know how equal parenting is working out because that may in fact be a different story…

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Ah, to be an older man in Korea.  In the Confucian hierarchy, they are king, and in the new social order where S lines, X lines, botox, designer handbags, youth, ‘beauty,’ and diet regimens reign supreme, older men, even more than older women, don’t have to give a fuck.

Now, there’s a lot to complain about when it comes to older men in Korea, and I sure as hell have experienced a few of those moments, but I want to tell you about how to manipulate this situation for your own good by telling you the story of my 70 year old father-in-law (the bad cop).

When we were looking for our apartment a few months ago, we encountered a problem.  We liked our apartment – we had started making deposits on the enormous chonse payment – but there were definitely things that needed to be fixed.  The windows had no screens to keep mosquitoes out or bars to keep would-be-robbers out despite the fact that you can literally walk from the roof of the traditional home beside our building into our living room and bedroom window.  The laundry room needed a cement-do-over to protect our brand new washer-dryer in the frigid winter, the bathroom sink needed a pipe replaced, and during heavy rainfall, the en suite bathroom ceiling leaked causing a potential electrocution risk.

Now, if you are paying monthly rent (wolse), the landlord is expected to fix those kinds of things and re-wallpaper the house before you move in.  However, with chonse, the large key money deposit which allows you to avoid paying rent because the landlord invests the money and lives off your interest, the tenant is supposed to act as the homeowner without any of the major benefits of home ownership (selling for profit, major home modifications etc).  With chonse you can get the landlord to make some changes, but you have to go about asking for them in a very round about way.  And for us…we realized that Mr. Lee’s father was that way.

So Mr. Lee’s father would call up the landlord and complain that he had gone to see his son’s future home only to find out…there were no bars on the windows.  Does the landlord want his son to die? Does the landlord want his son’s possessions to be stolen? How could this travesty continue?  And then Mr. Lee would call the landlord a few hours later about an unrelated issue only to hear about his father’s angry phone call.  ‘Oh I’m so sorry,’ Mr. Lee would say, ‘I didn’t realize that he was going to call you and complain when he asked me what your number was!’  But then we would return to the house to measure for where our furniture was going to go…and magically bars had appeared on the windows!!

And then a few days later Mr. Lee’s father would call the landlord back.  Did he not realize that there was a gap between the two walls allowing air flow into the laundry room? What would happen to his dear son’s washer-dryer that he had put so much money into purchasing during the cold winter?  What if the pipes burst and caused water damage to the rest of the building? And on that note, how could the landlord possibly in good conscience allow his precious son to be electrocuted during the heavy summer rains if the bathroom leakage problem was not fixed? Why wasn’t the landlord going IMMEDIATELY to fix it?  And then Mr. Lee would call the next day apologizing for his SEVENTY YEAR OLD father who was very OLD and had a strong mind of his own. Oh we were so very sorry about his father’s insistent calling, but he was an old man after all who cared about his son’s wellbeing.  And then?  the workmen showed up at the house for some serious weatherproofing that has so far repelled the massive amount of rain we’ve been getting this weekend. 

Back and forth this father-son…good cop-bad cop dual went, getting the major and minor things fixed that needed to be addressed.  For his part, my father-in-law played his part brilliantly, adding a great deal of emotion and feeling into advocating for changes on the basis that some great woe would befall us otherwise.  He also, in his older-man brash sort of way – knocked on all the doors of our neighbours to get all the gossip about the landlord, building, and area, and negotiated a great bargain with the upstairs truck driver to use his truck on moving day.  He didn’t have a lot of monetary wealth to give us, but he gave us the gifts of his status in Korean society and cultural-given ability to complain and petition out loud in a way we were unable to do.  Yes, we could have made a fuss ourselves to get these things fixed, but as relationships are highly important in Korean society, it was important for us to present ourselves in a positive light to the landlord and as amicable tenants.  Mr. Lee’s father, by virtue of his age (older than the landlord couple) and the fact that he does not actually live in the building, was able to be more insistent and forward than we could have ever been.  Other friends married into Korean families have told me that their in-laws played similar roles in terms of negotiating better deals on furniture and appliances for them, or in negotiating contracts. 

So I struggle with this Confucian hierarchy. I really really struggle….but I’ve also learned that it is not always experienced in a negative way by Koreans.  In fact, in the ideal, an older person should not just dictate commands to younger people but are also supposed to be take care of ‘juniors.’  Although I do believe that there many situations now when abuse, harassment, and just plain bad manners are often mislabelled as ‘Confucian traditions,’ I was able to have a very positive experience with this system, and I am grateful that it was with my father-in-law.  He is not a perfect man, but in this situation at the very least, he did his best to provide what he could for our new life together.

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