Posts Tagged ‘culture’

One of my first observations upon coming to Korea was that no one was married.  Or at least, no one wore wedding rings.  Combine this with the fact that in class, my middle aged men rarely mentioned their wives or kids, AND the fact that they were clamoring to take late night elective English classes at academies far from where they lived, and you can see why I might have been confused at first from a Western perspective.  It took me several months to find out one of my students was married, and another couple of months to learn that he had kids, despite the fact that he was in a conversation class where we often talked about families – at least the general concept of the family.  It was really disquieting to learn this information about the student because he presented himself as a ‘good Christian man,’ but his lack of wedding ring and desire to talk about his family seemed, from my just-left-Canada viewpoint, to be a way to deny, obscure, or lie about his marriage.

Times have changed – even in the last 5 years – and now there are middle aged men who wear their wedding rings – and some of them do love to talk about their wives and kids (although some still consider anything more than the fact that they exist to be ‘too private’) – but it still remains true that wearing one’s wedding ring is much less common here than in my home country, and the emotional response to rings is much different. 

Yes, a great many younger dating couples wear matching ‘couple rings’ to show that they have at least reached the 100 day milestone in their relationship, and some women have requested to ‘see my ring’ – but they’re not asking to see my engagement ring because Korean women rarely get an engagement ring in the same way as Western women. Women might get a set of jewelry (or 2, or 3, or…) before their wedding which may include a diamond ring.  And certainly women and men know about the ‘grand proposal’ that is supposed to begin an engagement – but the idea of a man getting down on one knee, pulling a ring box out of his pocket, and sliding a huge diamond onto his fiancée’s left ring finger is more Hollywood fantasy than modern day reality for the majority of women.  In fact, my wedding ring is a Tiffany knock off engagement ring, which almost everyone in Korea acknowledges as a wedding ring (everyone in Canada considers it my engagement ring).  So, if a Korean woman asks me about my jewelry, she usually says, ‘is this your ring?’ while a Canadian woman would say ‘show me your rings!’  The implication in the Canadian question is not only that to be ‘properly married’ you should have an engagement ring and a wedding ring, but also that you should be wearing both of them, wearing both of them on the left hand, and wearing both of them for the purpose of showing others that you are married.  The Korean implication is that there may or may not be a ring because people may or may not wear the ring.

None of these differences about ring vs. rings really matter to me.  It’s just an interesting observation.  What matters is the fact that my husband is one of the group of slightly older men who does not like wearing his wedding ring.  Before we got married, I knew all this above information about men in Korea and rings in the Korean consciousness, and still…it never occurred to me that he would be one of the don’t-want-to-wear-my-ring group.  So I mentioned that we needed a ring for both the church and Canadian weddings, and he went along and ordered a nice gold ring for himself after about an hour of trying on rings.  And then we picked up our rings, took them home, and he put his in his jewelry box and refused to wear it again.


It was actually a very upsetting moment for me.  Yes, I knew that this was okay in Korea, and I must have known deep in my heart that this was a possibility from experiences with all my other students, and yes, I know that it’s just a symbol of marriage…but, But, BUT…I had a very strong response to his refusal to wear his ring because deep down there was a strong emotional and cultural attachment to the symbol.  And honestly, it was difficult being in Canada together with people looking strangely at his hand and asking why he wasn’t wearing his ring…and there’s still a great unease when other expats in Korea ask me where his wedding ring is.

 It’s actually been very interesting to see my own irrational reaction and to try to critically analyze my feelings to see what is cultural, what is emotional, and what is me just being childish and wanting my own way.  Pretty quickly I did realize that there are battles you pick, and fighting for my husband to ‘show’ me that he was married by wearing a ring was not something I should pursue.  We did finally come to an agreement though that he would wear it for certain occasions.  I wanted him to wear it for all of our anniversaries, but we later agreed that April 23rd (the day of our legal wedding) and August 15 (the day of our Canadian wedding, and the day we will be celebrating our anniversary every year) should be the days.  And…I also lobbied for my birthday.

So, today I turned 30, and Mr. Lee kissed me goodbye at 6:15 am to go off to work, and put his hand in mine so in my groggy state I could feel that he was wearing his ring.  It is not a perfect arrangement – it doesn’t satisfy my childish impulses to get my own way – but it is a reasonable accommodation of my cultural expectations in a culture where it is not expected.  And that is the kind of reasonable compromise that we need to keep working on as we do this cross cultural marriage thing.

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A little while ago, there was a bit of K-blog discussion about the modern Korean wedding, sometimes known as the ‘Western-style’ (more like ‘North American style’) or ‘wedding hall wedding’ (here and here and here).  Of course I was in the last stages of planning my own Korean wedding, so I didn’t have time to make a more timely response to those discussions.  Now, I’ve already blogged about how there are distinct and definite differences between this type of wedding in Canada and Korea, but I’d like to address the issue of ‘authenticity’ with the modern Korean wedding.

Long ago, even before we were engaged, Mr. Lee and I decided that we would not be having a wedding hall wedding in Korea.  There were a couple of reasons for this.  A) They are mostly cookie-cutter weddings, and we are not cookie-cutter type of people B) Mr. Lee works for a large company where workers are ‘required’ to attend even remotely connected coworker’s cookie-cutter weddings, which means that these days few of his coworkers actually attend weddings.  They go – hand in their money…eat the meal during the ceremony…and then rush upstairs to get into the photo to ‘prove’ they were there. By having a contemporary traditional wedding, people were actually excited to attend the ceremony C) Even his parents had a wedding hall-esq wedding…meaning that nobody since his grandparents’ generation had participated in a ‘traditional’ wedding – making it a unique experience for all but strangely many of my friends as a larger-than-you-would-expect number of expats marrying Koreans actually opt for this ceremony.

But the overarching feeling that we both had was that we didn’t want a wedding hall wedding because we didn’t like it.  We didn’t want the bubble machines, motorized carriages, smoke machines, blaring music, people talking on their cell phones loudly through the ceremony, the magic shows, the feats of strength…the sword used to cut the fake cake…and I’m not kidding about this.  These things regularly occur in wedding hall weddings.  In other words, to us it did not seem like an authentic wedding. 

Now, notice that I said, ‘to us.’ 

Authenticity is a tricky issue, and certainly there is a whole lot of nationalism and perhaps at times even fanaticism attached to culture in many places in the world, and especially in Korea.  To say that culture is and has always been shared is a touchy subject with many people because everyone wants their culture to be ‘unique’..the first…the innovators…the alpha of any cultural form, symbol, or ritual.  But academically, the more you do objective research, and the more you expand your search, the more you realize that finding ‘authentic’ culture or even the origins or a cultural practice is no easy or possibly even possible matter.  Therefore, any kind of academic discussion saying the way Koreans celebrate Christmas is ‘inauthentic’ is a ridiculous discussion to have…because it’s true that Christmas barely resembles ‘Western Christmas’ with the exception of the public displays of lights and perhaps some nativity plays safe inside closed churches, but saying it is ‘inauthentic’ misses the fact that many Christmas symbols are pre-Christian, pre-modern West symbols.  Not to mention the fact that many American, Canadian, Kiwi, Aussie, South African etc. customs are from Europe….which have evolved over centuries in a different contexts from their ‘European’ roots…just as European customs in Europe have evolved and changed.  (Have you ever read David Sedaris’ Six to Eight Black Men? Do it….it is Santa as you’ve never seen him presented before).  And then we have to talk about the point in culture when something is indeed ‘authentic.’  Is it what is practiced now? What our grandparents practiced? What people did 200, 500, 1000, 5000 years ago which have now changed beyond recognition?  Certainly if I met my great great great great grandparents, they would consider the modern Canadian wedding as just as ‘inauthentic’ as I would consider their weddings.  All this means that from a rational point of view, ‘authentic’ should never be used with great seriousness when we talk about culture.  We can certainly note something that came earlier or later, or something that is closer or further away from an earlier manifestation, but we cannot say in an objective and rational way that culture is authentic or inauthentic.  It’s too loaded of a term.

However, let me return to that phrase ‘to us.’  I do think that from an emotional, a personal, an individual point of view, that cultural can feel inauthentic.  I will never, no matter how much Mr. Lee begs, go to a rock concert and eat pasta on Christmas Eve.  For me that’s not an authentic way to spend Christmas Eve.  Christmas Eve means candlelight service, Christmas hymns, family rural Canada style dinner, and preparing privately for a great religious and cultural holiday.  It is not for going on a date with your significant other and braving the crowds for a K-pop concert.  That doesn’t mean that the Korean customs are wrong and I am right…it just means that I would feel like I was compromising my religious and cultural beliefs to do something other than I was raised with.  Even this past Christmas, when I went to Hong Kong to visit my sister, we went to her uber low Anglican church where they had glow sticks…seriously…glow sticks…for candles.  Merry Christmas to you Hong Kong! But we went to church and sang our hymns and heard the Gospel readings and then went back to our tiny hotel room to reminisce about Christmases past and track Santa’s travels on the NORAD website…because despite the radically different cultural context we were in, for us, Christmas is for Jesus and Christmas is meant to be spent with family…so that’s what we did.

So when it comes to wedding hall weddings in Korea, I want to say that for me, it doesn’t seem like an ‘authentic wedding.’  The symbols are there – the rituals are there, but to me they are but shadows of what I consider ‘the real thing.’  And for Mr. Lee, although he does not have the Canadian mainstream wedding experience, the wedding hall wedding does not seem dignified.  That’s not saying that it isn’t dignified for some people, and that for many brides it isn’t the ritual they have always dreamed of…it’s just not the ritual we have dreamed of.  And considering the fact that we are having a Canadian wedding at home which is sort of traditional (in a goth-rock sort of way), we didn’t want to have what we feel is the less ‘authentic’ version of the North American wedding.

Now, some people may say that as a ‘foreigner’ that I do not have the right to comment on Korean rituals.  I’ve already dealt a bit about the issues of what constitutes ‘foreigner’ and what kinds of rights and responsibilities we might/should have.  But on this particular issue, I want to simply say that when culture affects my life…when it is about celebrating my life stages … or affects my work or family life…or infringes upon my body…I do get a voice and I do have an opinion.  Of course, much of this hinges on the way in which we speak about culture, and if we can phrase differences of opinion in respectful ways, but I do think that expats, especially expats getting married or thinking about married here, have just as much right as our spouses to like or hate or feel ambivalence about wedding hall weddings. 

I fully realize that there are many pros about getting married in the wedding hall (see Roboseyo’s post), and most definitely our wedding venue had some of the things we perceive of as problems with the wedding hall wedding system (rushed feeling, lack of choice, buffet where everyone eats together)…but there ceremony itself was to our liking, and seeing as it was our wedding, we felt that it was within our rights to make our own judgements about what we were and were not comfortable with.

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Howmanyofme.com tells me:

Current name: 4 people in the US have this name
If I were to take Mr. Lee’s family name: 156 people in the US have this name

Perhaps one of the most controversial topics in the North American wedding blogging world is name changes. I’ve participated in a few online name-change debates, and I have to say that I’m surprised not by the fact that many women continue to change their name, but by some of the arguments people use to advocate for name change. I am also appalled by the number of online brides-to-be who are distraught at the thought of changing their name, but feel enormous pressure by fiancé, family, or social context into taking his name. So, I’ll try to keep this civil, but I do want to discuss my reasons for keeping my name and never becoming a Mrs. Lee. I am specifically addressing the custom of women taking their husband’s name and not the various hyphenating/men changing names which are also present in various societies. The following are the usual arguments people give me for why I should change my name and my rebuttals.

It’s tradition.

This of course begs the question, ‘whose tradition?’ In Korea, women never change their names. In many Muslim cultures, women never change their names. In other cultures women and men take on a combination name. Specifically in Korea, it would be very strange for me to have the same family name as my husband. There are less than 300 family names in Korea. For instance, Wikipedia tells me that 14.8% of Koreans have a variation of the name ‘Lee,’ while 21.6% have a variation of ‘Kim.’ These Lees and Kims and Parks and Chois and Jungs are not all part of the same family. There are Lees originating from one region and Lees from another. The long standing family registry system in this country makes it easy to track such origins. Until very recently, it was actually illegal for a Lee from one ancestral area to marry a Lee from ancestral area because it was considered incestuous within Confucianism no matter how distantly related the bride and groom were to each other (of course – if you are a distant relation on your mother’s side – that’s okay). Lees from different areas have always been legally able to marry, but it is still considered taboo by many. Mr. Lee’s brother and sister-in-law are both Lees from different areas, but this is a rarity. Women keep their names after marriage because although they are registered under the husband’s family in the family registry and removed from their own family registry, they do not lose their familiar connection or history with their family.

So maybe in Korea this is not tradition, but what about your Scottish-German Canadian background you say? Well, in fact ‘traditionally’ women did not always give up their family names upon marriage in Scotland. It is rather a more ‘modern’ nineteenth and twentieth century ‘innovation’ aka influence brought upon by English law and customs for women to change their names. In fact, if the wife’s clan was more powerful, the man sometimes took his wife’s clan name. But more importantly for me, in contemporary Canadian culture, there are vast numbers of Canadian women who do not take their husband’s name, making it now ‘custom’ in many circles to keep one’s name. In Quebec for example, it is incredibly difficult for married women to legally change their family names. For an increasing number of people and areas, it is becoming common to hyphenate names for both men and women. What is ‘tradition’ should not simply be defined by a Victorian-England reading of world history and customs.

In other words, based on my cultural context and Mr. Lee’s context, it is in fact not our tradition for women to change their names.

You obviously lack commitment to your marriage if you don’t change your name.

This is perhaps the most bewildering argument for me, not to mention incredibly offensive. If men and women were living in a culture where they both changed their names upon marriage, and one of them refused to do so, then I can see how this argument might make a wee bit of sense. However, it does not make sense to me that a woman who does not change her name is considered lacking in commitment for her marriage, but a man who keeps his name is committed. The burden of proof as to one’s commitment should not rest more heavily on women, and above all, marriage should be much more than a simple name change!

We have to have the same name to be a family.

I get the fact that in patriarchal societies wherein children are given their husband’s family name, women might want to have a name connection with their children. Therefore, the yearning to be linked through name makes sense to me. However, the belief that a name makes a family does not make any sense. In Canadian culture, the high divorce, remarriage, and children born out of wedlock marriages, means that a great number of children do not have the same name as one or even both of their parents. In Korea, women almost never have the same name, and yet they are not considered less of a mother. What’s more, if, in Canada, a woman has a daughter who changes her name, does that mean that parents and daughters are no longer family after a name change? Perhaps under past law where women were not treated as full persons and thus wards of their fathers and then husbands, but certainly no woman in her right might would believe such a thing today. I do not feel less of a connection to my mother’s relatives or my cousins who have vastly different family names from my own; therefore, I do not believe I will have any less of a connection with my children because we do not share the same family name. In fact, there are so many other ways to be connected to one’s family through name. For instance, I hope to give my future children a Scottish or German first name to go with their Korean family name, and that first name will come from one or more of my female relatives.

My kids will be confused.

I don’t want to spend much time on this argument as I think it is linked to the previous objections. I don’t think that my cousins are confused about the identity of their mother because she kept the name given to her at birth, and I don’t think Korean children are perpetually at a loss as to who their mother really is. I hope we give children a little more credit for being intelligent beings than this argument purports.

It’s romantic.

This is an emotional rather than a logical argument. In making this statement, I do not want to imply that it is thus less important because it is emotional. I just mean that romance is a feeling that means different things to different people. If a woman feels that it is romantic to take her husband’s name, then that is her feeling which is her’s alone. The opposite is also true. Therefore, if a woman feels changing her name is a romantic gesture, then she should by all means do it, but it should not be a reason given to all women for the reason why they should make that change.

Your name is from your father anyway – so you are being less of a feminist by keeping your birth name because you did not choose it.

I’m not sure if most women who keep their name are concerned about the patriarchal tradition of giving children the father’s family name (when they have children, this custom may become a larger concern). Most women I talk to feel more concerned about the patriarchal assumption that it is women who must change their name, and thus in some ways their identity in order to demonstrate their commitment to marriage (see above). Some of the older crowd in English-speaking Canada still believe that Jane Smith becomes Mrs. John Johnson when she marries. That’s the kind of identity change I want no part of. Yes, my family name comes from my father, but over the past almost 30 years it has become my name and my identity apart from my father and his ancestors. If I were to take my husband’s name that would be taking on his history and culture into my name in a sudden moment without cultivating that identity over time myself.

I do not mean to suggest that women who change their family names are bad or oppressed in any way. Name change, no matter if it is for marriage or another reason, should always be a deeply personal decision which should be based in a particular person’s context and background. And for me, I believe I will be connected to my husband and children regardless of my name, and above all, my name is my name.

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On Our Game

We Canadians are not known for being outwardly patriotic.  In fact our usually horrid Prime Minister made a good point when he asked Canada to be uncharacteristically brash in showing their love of country during the Olympics.  He followed up by assuring us we could ask forgiveness for our nationalism at a later date. 

 There is one thing though that brings out the maple leaf in seemingly all Canadians.  We call it ‘Our Game.’ 

 It’s hard for non-Canadians to understand this equating of nation with hockey, but this Coca Cola commercial is one of the best representations of this sentiments I have ever seen. 

Within minutes of posting it on Facebook, my cousin living in Egypt had reposted it.  By the time I went to bed a few hours later, it had been reposted by 5 other Facebook friends and gleefully commented on by a number of others.  They all instantly recognized ‘Canada’ in the commercial’s hockey moments great and small, including my Pakistani-American best friend who lived in Canada for 6 years.  It made her ache for her other homeland.

 I tried to show the commercial to Mr. Lee last night in an attempt to convey to him the centrality of this icy game in Canadians’ sense of self.  He snorted with laughter on seeing the commercial.  He couldn’t get it.  It isn’t in his blood.

 I can understand his lack of understanding.  His earliest childhood memories aren’t of bundling in blankets with a Timmys in hand to watch the local kids in a tournament at the hometown arena.  He has never played on a silent still night on a frozen pond or the yearly village arena built by the Lions Club.  He hasn’t had a good half of the conversation at every family event devoted to discussing and dissecting his cousin’s junior and then American and European hockey career.  And he didn’t spend down time in grade 1 watching the National Film Board’s version of The Hockey Sweater, or later reading it in French as Une abominable feuille d’érable sur la glace (The Abominable Leaf on the Ice). 

In short, the game of The Great One, is not part of his national mythology, and it does not occupy the airwaves of tiny diners and cramped cabs on frigid nights.

 And when I say ‘Canadian’ I do not mean white Canadians, although almost every white boy of my generation played the game as a formal extracurricular at some point in their lives or on the frozen ponds or road hockey in their driveway during the warmer months (I only know a few women my age who played on the ice, but Canada’s recent dominance in the Olympics shows our girls have been frequenting the ice almost as often as the boys for almost a generation now).  We recently got a Punjabi language play-by-play for the NHL in Canada which quickly climbed to 100,000 regular viewers.  For many Punjabi-speaking Canadians, hockey might not be in their literal blood, but in the embracing definition of Canada, it is in their newly acquired citizen blood as a whole generation has been now born and raised around those same ice rinks with their white friends, and their first generation parents inherited the love of the game from driving their children to practice, tuning into the game with their coworkers, and chatting about the night’s scores with customers.  One of the people who reposted the Coca Cola commercial on Facebook is a 2nd generation Chinese Canadian who is a more rabid fan than many multi-generations-in-Canada-Canadians I know.  Responding to another friend’s comment about listening to the play-by-play on AM radio – a memory embedded in childhood psyches from just a generation back – an ethnically Guajarati-by-way-of-Uganda friend commented that NHL radio broadcasts took her back to late nights driving home in her father’s pickup truck.  So again I say, it is in our blood and our collective psyche. 

Brian posted an interesting article about the Korean government’s new plan to develop gold medal winners in traditionally less popular sports in Korea, including hockey.  While I don’t agree with all of Brian’s arguments, he makes a good point that when it comes to many sports, Koreans are less interested in the sport itself than being internationally recognized as being at the top of the sport, and the Koreans who reach the top of the podium.  Canadians will be DEVESTATED if we do not win the gold medal in men’s hockey, and it will be the one time when we engage in communal handwringing and public laments if we do not win.  However, we do not want the gold simply to assert our supremacy on the world stage, but because a gold reaffirms our devotion to the game itself.  The devotion is for the love of the game.  Except for the bandwagonners, the majority of Canadians just love the game itself.  The gold is essential for our national confidence, but the failure to achieve gold this time will not shake our devotion to the game.  Korea’s devotion to women’s figure skating has nothing to do with figure skating itself.  It is about how Kim Yuna can expedite Korea-branding in the minds of international viewers and validates the nation’s understandable desire to succeed on the world stage.  The sport doesn’t matter as long as the medal is gold. (I should here give major props to Yuna who blew everyone else out of the water today!)

Soccer post-World Cup 2002 when Korea co-hosted with Japan is a notable exception as the game seems to have rapidly gone from something which is only popularly watched when the national team is playing, to a an integral part of childhood, military service, and rainy night play-by-plays in every single cab in the nation.  If I were to leave Korea now, one of my most consistent memories would be those cab play-by-plays and cab driver’s desire to discuss the game specifics with me regardless of their English language skills.  Give it a generation, and perhaps soccer will start to have this deep-seated place in the collective Korean psyche in so far as the children of expats born in Korea will have the same unwavering devotion for Korean soccer teams at both the local and national levels.  When I went to the UK at the age of 16, I was puzzled by a billboard showing a soccer player saying ‘We know.  It’s our religion too.’  Korea is getting to that place, but it’s not there yet.

So Mr. Lee does not understand the place of hockey in my national identity, but I do hope the strange desire on the part of the Korean government to have an internationally viable Korean hockey team becomes a reality.  I would love my children to be able to experience the love of the game from a young age.  Whether or not my children ever become pro-hockey players or devote themselves as fans to a particular team is beyond the issue.  I want my children to get chills at the sound of a stick hitting the ice, to have the smell of arena ice implanted in their minds.  It’s a great game.  A game their grandfather once coached, their uncles and cousin played, their mother watched late into the night and far from her homeland, their aunt followed religiously, wrapped in her Ottawa Senators blanket.  I want my future children to have this love for the game because without it, they cannot understand their Canadian identity.

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