Posts Tagged ‘marriage’

This is a little late, but April 23rd was our second wedding anniversary and Dragon’s 3rd month birthday. We celebrated on the day of with an ice cream cake. Three little candles for D and two big candles for us.

On the Friday, we celebrated by going to our anniversary restaurant (Chaegundaam) for lunch as D gets a wee bit cranky at night. You can read more about the restaurant in my blog post from last year. It’s crazy to think that last year at this time, Dragon didn’t even exist, and next year he will be toddling all over the restaurant.

This year didn’t disappoint either. We have a White Day and my birthday Korean-vegetarian restaurants that we go to every year, but this one really is a cut above the rest. I should note that this is not a vegetarian-only restaurant, but they do have a set menu that is vegetarian (2 people have to order it though).

And now without further ado…the food!

The appetizers

The main meal


Read Full Post »

He came home in his suit and changed into his shirt with baby vomit on it – but only a little. I said, ‘Great! Now we are wearing our baby vomit couple shirts.’ He said, ‘Yeah.’
He got himself settled with the baby and feeding pillow in the middle of the bed while I warmed up the baby’s bottle. Then I settled myself on the side of the bed and started pumping. I said, ‘Are you jealous of how much time my boob spends with the pump?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’
He started burping the baby. I found my body starting to slump and my eyes starting to close. The baby threw up. The touch of spit became a long trail down the front of the shirt. He got up and changed his shirt. I said, ‘You probably look sexy, but I can’t find the strength to open my eyes.’ He said, ‘Yeah.’
I woke up. He was changing the diaper. I said, ‘I think I was drooling.’ He said, ‘Yeah.’
We settled back in bed. We talked at great length in English about the baby’s input and output. Then he sang his own songs about expelling gas and excrement to the baby in Korean. I said, ‘I’m so happy this baby is growing up bilingual.’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’
The three of us cuddled – two with drooping eyes and limp bodies – one with arms flailing and jubilant songs pouring forth from his lips. The baby punched me in the nose and kicked him in the stomach. We didn’t realise this for some time. He said, ‘This baby doesn’t want a brother or sister anytime soon.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’
The clock struck midnight. We tried to kiss goodnight. The baby screamed. We sighed, opened our eyes, and with resignation said, ‘Yeah.’
We put the baby in the wrap carrier. I walked and rocked and swayed and bopped around on the exercise ball. The baby’s eyes shone bright in the darkened room. I said, ‘If this is what is means to spend time with you these days, then let’s at least hold hands.’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’

Read Full Post »

On White Day 2012

Today is White Day, the day when men in Korea give candy to the women who gave them chocolate for Valentine’s Day. But I like chocolate. And ice cream. And I always get an ice cream cake and chocolates from Mr. Lee. We also always revisit our second date restaurant, but we did that on the weekend.

But sadly, this White Day I’m trying to avoid dairy because Dragon has infant reflux, and we are trying to find out if certain kinds of food affect his reflux. So dairy is mostly out for me these days.

Mr. Lee was on his way home yesterday, and he stopped in at the local Home Plus centre to pick up an ice cream cake from the Baskin Robbins store there…only to remember that I can’t have it right now.

So he brought me home a week’s worth of groceries instead so that I wouldn’t have to go out with the baby.

A man in a suit with his arms full of fruit, vegetables, and soy milk. That’s what true love and a good marriage means to me post baby! I love this man.

Read Full Post »

I just read an interesting article in the New York Times about Korean ‘Father School.’

“Traditionally, in the Korean family, the father is very authoritarian,” Joon Cho, a program volunteer, told me a few weeks before this session of Father School began. “They’re not emotionally linked with their children or their wife. They’re either workaholics, or they’re busy enjoying their own hobbies or social activities. Family always comes last.”

In 2000, Father School spread from Korea to the United States, and the program — part 12-step recovery, part Christian ministry — was tailored to meet the needs of Korean immigrant fathers dealing with Americanized kids who wondered why their fathers weren’t more like the touchy-feely dads they watched on TV. Since then, Father School has exploded. It now operates out of 57 American cities and has graduated nearly 200,000 men worldwide.

The article goes on to describe how the program uses group testimonies (of a parenting not religious nature), foot washing, and hugging as ways to break down barriers between men and their wives and children. I’ve never heard of this program here, but as I’m not involved in Protestant churches which seem to be the main groups signing up for such schools, it’s very possible that I’m just not moving in the right circles. I did an English language search and found this more in-depth article from 2009 written by a Korean American.

The men are encouraged to discuss these contrasting representations, but getting stoic Korean men to share their feelings is no easy task. A combination of guest speakers and testimonials by Father School volunteers, who are themselves former students, facilitate this effort. A volunteer at one conference I attended, for example, shared with the audience how, in an overzealous attempt to impart the lesson of poverty and the importance of studying, he once left his son on a street corner in a poor neighborhood and shouted in outrage whether he wanted to end up like the people there. With tears, the guest speaker expressed deep regret recalling the tears that had appeared on his son’s face that day. He realized there is a “better way” to impart lessons to a child.

While sitting at the table of 40-year-old fathers, I heard several men raise a number of issues related to generational conflict with their Americanized children. Many expressed frustration over their children’s disrespect for their authority, with one even revealing that his child called the police to report the dad’s use of physical discipline. As I listened to these men, I, the son of a Korean immigrant, started to recall my own dad’s use of “tools” like a pool stick or the pulling of a cheek to reprimand the two boys in the family. The linkage between Korean fatherhood and physical violence is an unfortunate stereotype, but at the same time, corporal punishment was long considered an acceptable practice in Korean society, whether within the family, school or military.

And yet, as I sat with these older men, I observed an uncommon scene: fathers choked up with tears and regrets about their past behavior. ”For several years, I was against the person my daughter loved and caused her considerable pain,” said Woojin, 57. Other dads confessed it was difficult to imagine their fathering role beyond breadwinning and scolding their children.

In my culture class, we’re in the middle of a module on different parenting practices, and a few weeks ago we looked at the Swedish government’s attempt to not only encourage fathers to take paternity leave, but also penalize families who do not make use of subsidizes for fathers. After discussing the NYT article on the topic, I asked students to discuss various questions pertaining to Korea in small groups such as ‘How often does your family eat together during weekdays?’ or ‘How often do you spend quality time with your father?’ I find that when students talk in small groups, they tend to be more honest than answering my questions directly because they don’t feel like they have to hide Korean social problems in front of the foreign professor. One student told her group that her family hadn’t eaten dinner with her father and mother together in ten years. Even on his days off, her father preferred to sleep, hike, or spend time with his friends rather than eat with his family. Another student said she hung out with her father about once a month despite living in the same house. A third said she rarely saw both parents growing up (she was raised by a family member because her parents both worked), and one of the male class members said that he always felt sad as a child because his father never came to any special events such as graduation. Not a single student agreed with the statement ‘I feel closer to my father than my mother.’ I haven’t talked about this issue directly with students since about 2007 when I taught at an adult hogwan, so initially I was hopeful that this younger generation had had more time with their fathers, but it does not seem to be so.

Back in 2007, I had one of those usual end of the month (end of the session), situations where I was sitting in an empty classroom hoping hoping hoping that I was going to get a 2 hour block no show. Alas, a female university student arrived 5 minutes late out of breath and apologizing for being late…until she looked around the room and realized she was the only one in class. I admit, I was a bit pissed off because I really really really wanted that no show! Not to mention the fact that the student was normally quite quiet and low level, so I really did not relish trying to pry 2 hours of conversation out of her by myself. But then we went to get coffee, started talking about her life…and she let slip that her father was a taxi driver. I say ‘let slip’ because what she was really telling me was that she was lower class, and as the conversation progressed, she admitted that sometimes other people made fun of her because her family didn’t have a lot of money. I told her that my father had been a blue collar worker, and asked her what the benefits were of a taxi driver father. She thought about it for a few minutes and replied that he was home far more than other fathers she knew because he did a lot of driving at night. He and her mother did all their errands together, he was always available to come to school events, they had father-daughter conversations as he drove her to school in the mornings, and he understood her very well because he spent time with his family. I have forgotten a lot of conversations with the thousands of students I have had over the years, but this one line will forever stick out in my mind because it was said with such joy on her face: ‘There is a lot of laughter in my house.’

Having a school for fathers seems a bit silly from a Canadian perspective, but as Koreans have come to rely on ‘academies’ or hogwans for almost everything these days, including how to get a date or how to smile like a flight attendant, and especially since it is hogwans that are actually one of the reasons why families do not have time to spend together, it seems actually pretty reasonable that a hogwan like program could be used as a culturally appropriate way to educate fathers and bring generations together. Confucianism, military culture, and the patriarchy have all contributed to this culture of absent fathers, but the biggest problem is that fathers do not have time, or do not think they need to make time to build a relationship with their children. On one level jung is supposed to be something that holds Koreans together based on their very Koreanness, and in the case of the family based on their blood relationship. However, when it comes to companies, employers recognize that jung does not happen naturally, but rather has to be cultivated through shared meal time, activities, and bonding time. Father School legitimizes time spent between parents, spouses, and children, as well as provides a safe place to share feelings which family members have not been able to share simply because they have not made the time and space to share in their own homes. It would be interesting to know if many non-Christian groups have Father Schools because I think this format also makes more sense from a Protestant sense by using public testimonies, utilizing cell group style structure, and emphasizing confession and forgiveness.  It would be interesting to see how a Buddhist, strictly Confucian, or avowedly secular group approached such issues.

Read Full Post »


Today is our 1-year legal wedding anniversary.  Hearts to the husband.  I can’t believe it’s been a year, but it’s been a really great year.  I thought marriage was going to be a lot harder, but after we got through the stress of getting a place of our own, planning 3 wedding ceremonies, and hosting both sets of families in our respective countries, marriage itself has really been a breeze.  I’m going to try and hang onto these memories from now on because life is not always kind, and I hope that whenever we run into inevitable problems – health, financial, family, or otherwise, I’m going to try and remember this first year as a way to show me that whatever life throws at us, we have a strong bond that can overcome everything if we stick together.

We celebrated by going out for dinner and wearing couple clothes.  Seriously. Us. Couple clothes.  Does it make it better if they are goth couple shirts?  I’m including pictures so you can see the sleeves of the shirts and then our overall outfits. I wore my awesome possum coat most of the time, so I guess most other people didn’t realize we were wearing the same shirt.  


Mr. Lee searched for quite a while for a new veggie place for us to celebrate at, and in addition to our usual haunts on White Day and my birthday, I think this will be our anniversary restaurant!  It’s called Chaegundaam (채근담), and it is located in Daechi-dong at Samseong Station.  It is a royal cuisine restaurant similar to the other upscale veggie places we frequent, but because its focus is not temple cuisine, there’s more flavour because they can use onions and garlic.  You just have to be careful because there are several branches, and only one location has a vegetarian option.  For instance, after going out Samseong Station exit 3 and walking for 5 minutes, you will see this restaurant.

This is not the restaurant – well, it’s a branch of the restaurant, but it does not have the vegetarian set menus.  The other branches are well known as places for engagement ceremonies.  Instead, keep walking, and when you get just past the wrong restaurant, you’ll see the Jaguar/Range Rover dealership.  Turn right, and you’ll see the real restaurant on the left.


I guess the makgeolli (fermented rice alcohol) is very famous because former dictator Park Chung Hee once drank it.


Here’s the inside of the restaurant.  It is quite lovely, and I wish I would have taken more photographs of the interior.


We chose the 50,000 won/person set, but there was a cheaper vegetarian option for dinner.  The first round of food started with radish kimchi in water (나박김치)


Soy and nut porridge (두견죽)


Salad (including dried apples!)


Cellophane noodles and vegetables (잡재) and a side dish of pickles and pickled lotus root


The porridge was really flavourful, and my favourite part of this course.

 Then we moved into the second course.  Mini pancakes – some with edible flowers (전)


Mushroom sesame soup


A ginseng/cucumber amuse bouche I wasn’t crazy for (I’m not a ginseng fan)


The BEST kimchi I’ve ever had in my life.  Seriously.  It was so tasty-pungent without being smelly pungent, and it was filled with dried jujubes (대추), chestnuts, and radish kimchi.  I ate about 2/3 of this dish.  I just could not stop myself.


Third round:  Radish slices self-filled with tiny slivers of vegetables (구절판) but our version was vegan, so there were fewer ingredients


Grilled mushrooms and ginko nuts


And tempura:  squash, ginseng (not great) and and and…..dried jujubes filled with sweet potato. Amazing. We complimented the server, and as part of my dessert, I got three extra ones just for me J


Fourth round!  Bean paste soup (된장찌개) – so so so good.




Various side dishes (반찬)


And scorched rice in hot water (누룽지)


Finally…dessert.  Rice cake (떡) and strawberries


And cold Korean raspberry tea (복분자차)


I strongly recommend this restaurant.  Obviously it is a bit pricier if you are on a strict budget, but if there’s a lot of restaurants in Seoul that purport to serve ‘Western’ or upscale food (sometimes incorrectly conflated) – but many of these places do not have the quality ingredients or service to back up the prices.  On the other hand, the ingredients are incredibly fresh at this restaurant, and the set menus provide so many good quality dishes that you don’t need to eat anything else for the rest of the day.  The only real problem I had with the restaurant is that at least 2 people have to eat a set – meaning that if you are veggie and your partner is not – you have to convince your partner to be a veggie for a meal….not a bad thing in my opinon.

Anyway, a super memorable day with a super fantastic husband of one year!

Read Full Post »

On Not Being Pregnant

One of the things I enjoyed most about interactions with Malaysians I met while travelling is the following conversation I had several times:

Random Malaysian: Are you married?

Msleetobe: Yes

Random Malaysian: Do you have any children?

Msleetobe: Not yet

Random Malaysian: Why?

Msleetobe: I’ve only been married 10 months.

Random Malaysian: Oh! Well that makes sense.  You have lots of time to have a baby! Enjoy your life now!

In contrast, I’m trying to reduce my taxi use in Seoul, mostly because I waste too much money on taxis, but also because taxi ajoshi, astounded by my Korean direction giving abilities, think I speak far more Korean than I do and thus try to find out all about my life.  Our conversations usually go like this:

Random Taxi Driver: Are you married?

Msleetobe: Yes.

Random Taxi Driver: American husband?

Msleetobe: No, he’s Korean. I’m Canadian.

Random Taxi Driver: Hun???….And then, do you have any children?

Msleetobe: No.  I’ve only been married 10 months.

Random Taxi Driver: That’s not good.  You should have a baby.  In Korea, it’s good to have children.  It’s important to have a baby. Quickly quickly you MUST have a baby. It’s not good to be childless.

I’ve developed a rather bland ‘yes’ as a quick response, and as the ajosshi repeats variations on his advice giving over and over again, I’ve also developed an ‘I understand’ that sounds rather commitment-less to me but has just the hint of submissiveness that older men live to hear.

It’s so funny that in a country with almost the lowest birth rate in the world, where so few couples want to have a child because it is so expensive, that strangers would be so interested in a foreigner’s fertility.  Then again, maybe that’s the reason taxi drivers, my managers, my Korean family members, and random strangers everywhere are so worried about my childlessness.

At church I was also pulled aside after being married for 6 months by another expat that it was important to have a baby AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.  I guess I am also skirting my religious duties. Sinful me.

I was chalking this up to a ‘Korean thing’ until I got this little message in my Facebook inbox today from my 9 years younger sister with the subject line ‘I promise, the last time I will ever mention this again.’

Mummy and I have a huge case of baby rabies. We spend significant portions of our days online shopping for baby clothes, perusing the baby aisles at winners/sears/bay, testing toys, etc. So, can you get knocked up soon??? Because I have $700 worth of clothes bookmarked at Janie&Jack (half boy, half girl) and they are REALLY FUCKIN CUTE so don’t let them get out of style. Mummy also is desperate to babysit, so send your spawn over to their relatives like good Asian parents do. k thanks

Alas, I have nothing witty and cute to say in response except to say, ajoshis, managers, church going folk, and family members…the one thing I assure you I’m NOT going to put off is buying a ticket back to Malaysia 🙂

Read Full Post »

On Food Poisoning

My friend P. was up visiting from Ulsan the past couple days, and we met up for some Thai on Thursday night. We haven’t seen each other since the summer, so we had a lovely time laughing, sharing stories, reminiscing about the past. We had a lovely time.

And then I went home and barfed my guts out. Happy food poisoning to me. The highlight of my night was at 2am. I started to lose consciousness while leaning over the toilet, so I sort of fell out of the bathroom into the living room because the bathroom floor is made of concrete and I was coherent enough to know head-hitting-concrete is something to be avoided. While sprawled on the living room floor, I croaked to Mr. Lee to come quickly, and he bounded out of bed by surprise (having been sound asleep when the first round of vomiting hit), and then he brought me a wash bucket in which I proceeded to vomit into while still lying on the floor. It was not my proudest moment.

The culmination of a night of agony, was that right before Mr. Lee left for work, I passed out once again in our en suite bathroom, but this time on the floor, so Mr. Lee did a strange salaryman thing. He decided to miss a day of work to take care of me. I know for a fact that there are Korean husbands out there who are demanding, refuse to do anything around the house, and require their wives to serve them. A few older Korean women have confided in me about this problem. However, with all the search engine hits this blog gets with variations on ‘bad Korean husband’ or ‘problems with Korean husbands,’ I feel the need to share my personal experience with a very caring and sacrificing Korean husband. It’s not easy to take a day off in Korea.

A Korean friend of a friend recently wrote on FB after a few weeks in hospital suffering from Hep B, “_____’s doctor said if she is Korean, he would make her stay on Christmas day b/c Koreans love to be at the hospital and want attention. It’s NOT that. It’s b/c work won’t let me off from work unless I’m in the hospital. Now I’m not in the hospital but at work on Christmas day. Which is worse?” There are times when Mr. Lee has taken off a day because of doing extra work, or because his boss has given him a day off in a moment of drunkenness, but when it comes to sickness, you better be immobile in a hospital, and even then your boss is probably incessantly calling wondering when you’ll be back at your desk. So to take a day off for your wife’s illness…now, that’s a bit of chutzpah. I later asked him if he would get in trouble for his decision, and he said he might get yelled at for a few days, but ‘meh, his wife was sick.’

Part of the reason is that I am of course an expat and thus don’t have my mother or sister etc to look after me. On this particular day, however, the fact that I couldn’t stand without seeing stars, and that I myself was incapable of washing out my bucket of vomit, probably also contributed to his concerns. And he was right. While the final bathroom sprawl was the last of the full floor face plants, I don’t think I would have made it to the hospital, or through the hospital rounds by myself as I couldn’t stand for more than about a minute without almost blacking out. I really did need him, and he was there when I needed him.

And then we got home, and he busied himself washing my stained clothing and all the towels I had gone through. He disinfected and scrubbed down both bathrooms so I could lie on the floor without fear of acquiring more germs if need be, and he happily played nurse, pharmacist, and general sick bed caretaker. It’s not like other husbands (and wives!) don’t take care of each other, but I think with some of the stereotypes of how Korean men, and especially middle age Korean men act, I think it’s important to put this out there and say, there are good Korean husbands who happily take care of their wives and lovingly dispose of and bleach buckets of vomit without complaint.

Of course, then the next day, Mr. Lee got the flu, and it was up to me to bleach the bathrooms, do the laundry, and make him homemade soup. I think it’s something we do well – taking care of each other. And it’s so nice to know that when I need him, my Korean husband, my dear husband, is a dependable person who will care for me.

Read Full Post »

You may have noticed that I have a few blogroll links to Mormon sites and wondered why an Orthodox Christian would be promoting (and religiously following) LDS blogs.  Well, as I said to my friend S, ‘all is right in Msleetobe’s world when she can find spiritual fulfilment in debates about New Mormon History.’ 

The truth is, I find enormous encouragement in studying alternative perspectives – especially those that radically shake my understanding of God and the world – and in addition, my academic and personal quests into Mormonism have happily led to be introduced to some truly fascinating and religiously ‘progressive’ people in the LDS world.  Specifically, I’ve become obsessed with John Dehlin’s amazing Mormon Stories podcasts and the advocacy and work of Carol Lynn Pearson.  Pearson is an actor, playwright, poet, and advocate who is interested in feminism and gay rights, especially after nursing her gay husband during his final few days struggling with HIV. 

So imagine my delight when Dehlin featured Pearson on Mormon Stories in a multi-hour interview about her life, advocacy, and work.  You can find the whole thing here, but one part that really stood out – and really makes me want to swamp an LDS publisher site to purchase all of her work, was a poem she read at the beginning of the final segment.


If ‘A’ looks up to ‘B’

Then by nature of the physical universe

‘B’ must look down on ‘A’

Rather like 2 birds


One on a tree

And one on the ground.

Or so thought Marjorie

Who had always wanted to marry

A man she could look up to

But wondered where that

Would place her

If she did.

Imagine her astonishment

When she met Michael and found

That together they stood

Physics on its head.

You could never

Draw this on paper

For it defies design

But year after year

They lived a strange


That by all known laws could not occur

She looked up to him

And he looked up to her.

Read Full Post »

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…

Read Full Post »

Gendered Expectations in Korea

I’ve already talked a bit about the gender expectations with regards to economic provisions (and I will discuss those later), but now I want to turn to a few other expectations which make it much harder for white Western women to form long term relationships with Korean men.  Korea is a neo-Confucius society which means a lot of things, but for our purposes here, it means that the eldest son – and sons in general have much more long-term responsibility to their parents than daughters.  When I first announced my engagement to a few older Korean women, one of the first questions they asked (with a look of anguish on their faces) was, ‘Is he the eldest son?’  No, thankfully he is the youngest of three with one older brother, but eldest sons, even in less traditional families, have way more responsibility…and this duty is transferable to the eldest son’s wife. 

One of my Korean friends who married a Canadian man told me that one of the greatest perks of having a Canadian husband was that she did not have a demanding mother-in-law.  They are legendary in Korea.  Whether or not all mother-in-laws are as evil as they are sometimes portrayed, in general it is safe to say that they are somewhat more demanding, and the cultural expectations of a daughter-in-law are greater than in the mainstream Canadian context.  My friend loves that during family gatherings she is a guest in her mother-in-law’s house instead of a worker serving men who do nothing but socialize and drink. She loves that she is not responsible for cleaning her mother-in-law’s house and does not have to prepare the enormous amount of food necessary for ancestral memorial rituals (and then be excluded from the ceremony because she is a woman). For her, marriage to her husband is about her relationship with her husband and not duty toward her mother-in-law.  Again, whether or not these duties are always required by Korean in-laws, and whether or not white Western women are part of this system are issues for another forthcoming post, but the point is that many Korean women that I know at the very least appreciate the fact that they have avoided these duties when they married Western men while white Western women know that at the very least there is a greater possibility that this is what they are setting themselves up for when they marry into a Korean family.

Additionally, while white Western men report more problems in society accepting their relationships to Korean women, I do think there is a certain factor within Confucianism which makes this partnership easier.  When women marry, they are taken off their family’s registry and added to their husband’s family registry.  And traditionally, when women married, they were no longer the responsibility of their family – or even part of it – which is the whole premise for the paebek ceremony when the new daughter-in-law bows to her husband’s family and shows her obedience and loyalty to them.  In the past women did not even visit their family members on holidays because they were expected to be helping out at their husband’s family’s house. 

On the other hand, a son is always part of the family and thus has responsibility to his family.  While this situation has changed dramatically in recent years, so that couples often visit both sides of the family, and bow to both families at the paebek ceremony, there is still a feeling that when a woman marries she leaves her family while when a man marries he stays. After greeting my mother for the first time, the very next thing my father-in-law said to my mother was to thank her for ‘sending her daughter to his family’ – the expression referring back to the time when women left their families and joined a new one – but in my case having the double meaning of actually flying to another country to be with Mr. Lee. 

What does this mean for international marriages?  Well, a contemporary role for Korean women is to be in charge of the children’s education.  So if a Western man wants to return to his home country, and he is married to a Korean woman, while the family might be very upset at her leaving, the fact that there is a tradition of the woman leaving means that there is some precedent.  But even more importantly, as there is a contemporary practice of sending children overseas to learn English, or for mothers and children to move abroad for ‘better’ education means that it is often easier for women to go to their husband’s home country in order to ensure the best possible education for their children.  I know many Korean women who are pushing/did push their Western spouse to move abroad for this very reason, and in most cases, it was not only accepted but actively encouraged by their Korean family members.   


At this point you may be asking, “Well why can’t Korean men move abroad if it means a ‘better education’ for their children?”  That’s a good question and it has to do with life stages, gender roles, and employment which makes my separation of each topic problematic, but I do think it is necessary to have some kind of organization for this lengthy topic.  We’ve already established the fact that there is an age and life stage gap between white Western women and Korean males.  If you are interested in dating a younger guy, you run into the problem of being at different life stages.  However, if you are interested in dating an older guy you run into a whole other set of issues.  The salaryman factor.

Getting into a top company and/or a stable job is no easy matter in Korea, and if you have made it that far, you are going to be either a younger guy from a well-connected and wealthy family or a later-20s guy because it took so long with your military service + studying for tests + taking tests to actually get to that job.  And by that time, if you have actually achieved that position, you are not going to easily give up that position to move abroad where you may or may not find a position and where you are probably not ‘qualified’ because in Western countries ‘qualified’ means more long-term employment than taking a lot of tests which is what it means in Korea.  Since there is an even stronger cultural expectation in Korea than in Canada that a man will provide for his family and wife in an economic sense, it’s very difficult for a Korean man in this situation to even be open to the possibility of giving up his life here and going abroad. 

My dear friend met her then boyfriend when she was already planning on leaving Korea, but the fact that he was mid-20s without gainful employment – or even a clear vision of what he wanted in life was a further problem in their relationship.  She encouraged him to do a program abroad which would have given him a practical skill and 100% chance at a job upon completion of the program, but his parents vetoed him going abroad.  There were other reasons for them breaking up, but his life stage and inability to go abroad to become employed were definitely factors which discouraged them from being able to continue with their relationship. 

On the other hand, I met Mr. Lee when he was 33.  He had a degree, had finished military service, had traveled and done all of his tests…but he had also been working in a safe and secure job for five years.  And this means that at both that time and now, he is not in a position to go abroad at least for many years.  I’ll deal with this issue and how we have negotiated around it in a subsequent post, but for now let me say that the fact that our future for the next decade or more is in Korea with no flexibility to move was a huge issue for me to overcome for many years. 

So why this push to go abroad in the first place?  Why is this even an issue? Isn’t Korea a good enough place to live?  Well…yes and no.

I’m not even going to into the stats and the facts right now, but a short search will show you the numbers for Korean women in the workplace and the rather low place Korea occupies on international gender indexes.  Often Canadians will ask me ‘Are Korean women allowed to get an education?’ which is a hilarious question if you live here.  As I’ve mentioned so many times here, the regular things feminists worry about like domestic control of money and education are not proper ways to evaluate the real social gains for women in Korea.  Girls are educated to the same extent as boys, and they are excelling far beyond boys in many subjects and areas.  Women can get jobs, and they sometimes become managers and CEOs.  However, the extent to how good of jobs women can get … and how stable their jobs are is another issue. 

Except for a few fields, the glass ceiling is still rather low in many many companies, women are still routinely fired/pushed out/encouraged to quit when they give birth or sometimes when they even become pregnant, and the childcare options are such that it is sometimes impossible for women to continue working because there is simply nobody to take care of the children.  I do know of women who have left Korea because of these kinds of issues and lack of opportunities in the workplace, and it is one reason why again, I think it is easier for many Korean women to marry an expat and move abroad.  For the white Western woman who is staying here, she has to worry about gender discrimination in the workplace plus the added issue that she does not have her own family here to support and help her during pregnancy, childbirth, and child care issues.  People often move to a country to ‘start a better life’ – and for some people, especially those from South East Asian countries and China, Korea is a better life in terms of standard of living.  That is a contributing factor to the number of immigrant brides from these countries.  Whether or not they find happiness and opportunity in Korea, there is a strong perception amoung these women that they will have a better life here. 

Conversely, when I talk to my friends who have an 18 month mostly-paid maternity leave in Canada, who can go back to their jobs with no questions asked/no promotions derailed, when their husbands come home at supper time every night and have an opportunity to take paternal leave (and take it!), I have to wonder if my options are such that I have a ‘better life here.’  I don’t know the answer to this yet. It is a constant and sincere struggle that I am working through. It’s also a factor of how involved a Korean husband can be in his family life.  So many Korean female friends have told me that they love it that the Western boyfriend/fiancé/husband comes home at a reasonable hour every night, doesn’t have to drink with his boss, and has enough time to be a child care partner.  I’ve discussed the salaryman ‘work’ culture at length here, and I do believe that when white Western women look ahead to their futures, and they think about the husband who regularly comes home at 2am drunk…or maybe not at all, that it is a serious issue in determining future happiness and marital stability simply because this kind of husband is not the ideal or even reality for most Western middle class women.  Really, when you look at the reality of the salaryman in Korea, you have to ask yourself – ‘Is my life really better here?’

In addition, as a foreigner there are fewer employment opportunities unless you are in particular fields.  Yes, if you are a white somewhat normal English-speaker, finding a teaching job is the easiest thing in the world here with a spousal (F2) visa.  In some cases entrepreneurs can be very successful with the right niche market or contacts, and some professionals like lawyers or consultants can find good work.  However, the breadth of opportunities is severely severely limited outside of these spheres to foreign women, in part because of language, Confucian culture, gender discrimination, and the fact that many companies are industries are not prepared to have a foreigner – and especially a foreign woman – in their workplace.  Yes, it can be hard for a white Western male trying to break into a ‘real’ job in journalism, advertising, etc. but this situation is magnified as a woman unless you come here with a multinational corporation.  Some of these issues (language for example), are ‘our fault,’ but others will take a great social shift to rectify.  One Korean friend for example, works in Canada at a clothing retailer.  While it is not the best job in the world, and certainly not a high level position, the fact that Canadian companies routinely hire people from different ethnic backgrounds without batting an eye means that she has a wide range of options while she studies/works toward higher level work (while in a field she actually likes).  In Korea, a white Western woman can secure a well-paying teaching job, but if she has an interest in a different field (outside of entertainment but only if she is a petite blonde), her opportunities will probably be much more limited. 

So what I want to say here is that there are innumerous reasons why people meet, date, and decide to marry.  However, there are many external factors which make it harder or easier for these relationships to develop and progress, and I think that some of these larger ‘life’ factors are stacked against the white Western female/Korean male couples.  Yes, society is generally against the idea of a white Western male/Korean female couple, but the other social factors are much more difficult for the opposite paired couple to overcome.  It’s not the ‘fault’ of any particular culture or practice, but it’s a combination which tends to discourage or limit white Western women and Korean men en masse from entering into long-term relationships leading to marriage.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »