I recently started toying with the idea of inviting guests to this site to blog about relevant issues, and last night it hit me that I knew the perfect person to kick this project off. I emailed him at 8:40 pm my time, and like the super blogger he is, he deposited this gem of a post in my inbox at 7:29 am. He has an important voice often ignored in discussions about international marriage in Korea, and I do hope that he’ll return now and then to share his thoughts and experiences because he really is a fabulous writer with an important perspective to share.
So without further ado, the story of Messrs. Stephen and Kichan Song.
I am feeling rather honoured to be asked to contribute to this fine journal of an interesting and valued life. It is nice to think you have a perspective on things that might comfort, entertain or ultimately annoy but let’s see if we can get through the next 15 minutes and emerge friends or at least polite acquaintances.
I am not an aggressive individual nor do I shy away from confrontation when needed and/or required. I have reached a milestone in my life ( 31). It is a fabulous moment when you stop worrying about conforming to anyone else’s ideals except your own, similar to the moment when you pack away the hot pants, stop caring about fashion and start caring about style. Everything becomes clearer, age becomes less relevant and student politics give way to things that bloody upset you and you take to the blogsphere.
Let me enlighten you and your confusion to the strange ramblings of this Irishman.
Five months ago I was married. It was the culmination of a four year relationship, a change of continents (Asia to Europe) and two years of paperwork which nearly drove me to applying for a firearm license and bringing justice to a lax bureaucracy. It wasn’t easy getting to “I do” but yes we did and thankfully we could in the Sangria soaked land of Spain we had chosen to call home. I say it was possible for the following reason; my other half is a man.
Now I am aware that this is very much a proverbial hot potato in the world at present, some countries do, most countries don’t, many support, many are against. I am not interested in the debate anymore, in the same way I am weary of discussing whether teenagers should have access to free contraception or women should be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. These are the issues that beggar belief that they are STILL being debated in the year 2010. Less intercourse is undertaken before invading a sovereign nation. Anyway, there, rant over, that is for another day, I am here to discuss how this nonsense disseminates from a central source and slowly filters down until it lands in your inbox bearing the following legend:
You do not exist.
Let me whirl back further a little. I mentioned I am married, what I share in common with Msleetobe is that I am also married to a Korean. A wonderful, challenging, dwen-chan jigae making Korean. He is a photographer, a fellow traveller and most wonderful of all, my husband, legally, unequivocally, certificate-provingly, my husband.
We were married in a simple civil wedding in Madrid in June this year. Our family and friends in attendance followed by a good old nosh up on tapas and champagne and a honeymoon in South America. It is a story repeated all over the world by couples everyday. At the registry office no mention was made of anything unusual or extra-ordinary, no special room or official was designated, we were not required to sign a pink certificate instead of a blue one, we simply married and that amigos was that. We. Are. Married.
Now, let us zoom forwards again in time. As I am writing this in fact, sitting in my apartment in Buenos Aires there is a feature on the T.V. about the fact that Argentina recently passed the same-sex marriage act and the first licenses have just been granted. ( I am on a 6 month transfer to the city in case you’re befuddled) The news crews and their various background leanings are out to get the reactions and of course you can imagine the different rhetoric being passed back and forth, I switch it off. I am longer interested in people’s opinions on the matter only that it IS. My husband and I have been talking recently about the future, we agreed to come to Spain for 5 years and then reassess. We are about half way so the inevitable chat happened, what we miss, what he wants to do , that fabulous sam-gyup-sal (BBQ pork) restaurant in Namsam, his family and my in-laws, friends and opportunities. We have been through the hurdles on the family front. A traditional, country family is his origin and concerns were naturally high about their reaction to the marriage. For the first four years of our courtship I was the nameless, out of sight ‘lover’, who was mentioned only in passing at national holidays and never presented for inspection. With the marriage looming it went from being a strong suggestion to a demand from me that he must tell them, our shared Korean friends also expressed this sentiment and so he did.
There was a stunned silence for a while. Luckily his sister who is married to an Australian and lives in Melbourne, thereby being a little more exposed to the world and it’s ways, acted as a selfless bridge of love and understanding and helped thaw the ice which as it turned out was merely more of a frost. They accepted us, because as reason and logic would have it, what else could they do?
I cannot say that as yet we are as bosom buddies, sadly my Korean is not at the level it should be and living in Spain and conquering that language had to take priority but I will continue to improve and one day I hope it is me in the kitchen during Chuseok ( Harvest festival) feverishly frying vegetables and seafood and cursing the laziness of the men folk before sitting down to a thoroughly mind-numbing game of go-stop while politely declining the soju.
In fact interestingly, the biggest challenge to date is how to address me. Korean being the title loving language that it is, every body has a certain honorific/ pet name in every branch of the family. Unfortunately for the Song family, they are very much gender specific and I and they find themselves in the awkward circumstance of perhaps offending me by what they say. In English we could euphemize and say ‘partner’ or ‘significant other’ but this won’t do at all in Korean, it belittles status but calling us both ‘nampyong’ (husband) would cause blushes and guffaws all round. I am a linguistic refugee on the peninsula. They have settled for calling my by my name for now, which is as it should be. (although my sister in law confided that more often than that I am known as Kichan’s Stephen, thereby placing the honorific squarely on his shoulders. Confucius would approve.
So to bring this back to my point. While contemplating the future, I was curious to know by what means I could return to Seoul, having been there previously as a teacher on that damnable E-2 visa I wanted to know what I would now be allowed in on. So, as a matter of course, I typed a respectful email and sent it to the embassies in Madrid, London and Dublin, the countries to which I am a paid up citizen. Madrid and Dublin simply ignored me even after re-sending 4 times. Finally, perhaps tired of my name in the inbox the consul in London responded. He had been in touch with Seoul and they had stated that under current Korean Law:
You do not exist as a legal entity.
When I called to question this a very angry consul simply reiterated his email. I questioned whether he meant I am not legally recognised as an individual or that my marriage is not. He said that in Korea I am not legally married and neither is my husband, therefore I cannot be treated as the equal of a wife. When I further questioned the possibility of this changing or another avenue for to explore, he simply responded “Not in Korea” and put the phone down.
Needless to say I was a little peeved. It is one to tell me that at present I am unable to apply for a visa, it is quite another to tell me that I am not legally married when I clearly am. Following our marriage my husband immediately gained the right to permanent residence in Spain and the right to apply for residence in both Ireland and the UK. I actually lost legal status in Korea.
It should be stated how much I love Korea and Korean culture, how much a part of my existence it is now, the pride I have in the cultural heritage and legacy of my husband’s people and we still share the dream of one day retiring to Gangwon-do and buying an old house to do up in out dotage. What fills me with despair is the absolute black and white philosophy of the ruling and domineering belief in what Korea is. What it means to be Korean and how deep a people can shove their heads in the sand about the world and the nasty elements they don’t want from it. Including me.
I am impressed by the brave efforts of the individuals who are trying to change the perceptions from within. I remember the angry boiling heartache of hearing ‘educated’ college kids and adults refer to homosexuals as strange and scary and ugly. I remember a principal of a college referring to the gay corruption of Korean youth by foreigners who then attempted to commit suicide due to the shame of being caught. I remember the unfortunate woman who knocked on my door to explain the evils of homosexuality to me ( after being tipped off) and I particularly remember her fleeing in terror down the street about 6 minutes later. I told her what I want all of Korea to know, it is an old sentiment but an important one. It will prevent your children and grandchildren from being scared, alone and ashamed.
Open your eyes, embrace diversity, get used to it.
We. Do. Exist. ( I have the certificate to prove it!)
Stephen Paul Song (Spwilletts@gmail.com)