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Posts Tagged ‘marriage’

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.

‘Position’

If ‘A’ looks up to ‘B’

Then by nature of the physical universe

‘B’ must look down on ‘A’

Rather like 2 birds

Positioned

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

Arrangement

That by all known laws could not occur

She looked up to him

And he looked up to her.

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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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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.   

Employment

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.

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I got a text message today inviting me to the ‘해피스타트교육” lecture…or ‘Happy Start Education’ lecture next Thursday at 1:30 pm at the main branch of Seoul immigration.  I’m supposed to bring my ‘family’ which means husband and I guess my inlaws? the text was unclear..although I’m not sure how many Korean husbands are free on a Thursday afternoon?!!  Anyway, I’m not going, I’m sure it’s geared more for new immigrants and will probably be some sort of love-in for Korea.  But it’s interesting that I was invited nonetheless.  I wonder what other fun things I might get invited to in the future?…

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On Money

Money, or the power to spend money, is a common concern for many feminists and for good reason.  In most places, the person who earns the money determines how the money is spent, and in many places in the world, that means men control the finances.  In good situations, this means that men ‘take responsibility’ for their family members and ensure for their wellbeing.  When I was growing up, my father was the primary breadwinner of the house (my mother had a part time job that paid for extras, but made a very small amount compared to him), and he gave my mum a certain amount of money each week to spend on groceries while he paid the utilities and mortgage.  It was probably the same system that my grandparents had used, and it seemed to work well for them.  But all too often around the world, men spend their income on alcohol, gambling, other women, or other vices, leaving women and children in a perilous position.  That’s why so many aid groups and initiatives focus on employment for women, because when women make their own money and control their own finances, family needs are much more likely to be met. 

Women also tend to be more susceptible to financial abuse.  My mother’s friend’s daughter was financially abused for years in that her husband forced her to turn all of her money over to him.  He then controlled her coming and going and every aspect of her life by controlling her cash flow.  She has very serious food allergies, and thus requires special, more expensive food, but by the time her family found out about what was happening to her, she was literally malnourished because her husband had refused to let her buy the food she needed.  After that case, my mother was always adamant that women should take care of their own finances.  

In Korea, however, money is much less a feminist concern than in many other countries around the world.  Even though men are expected to be the primary breadwinner, and a great many women still hope to marry a man capable of financially taking care of them so they do not have to participate in the all-consuming pressure cooker that is the Korean workplace, the contemporary ‘traditional’ practice is for men to give their paycheque to the wife as soon as he gets it. This is one of the reasons, as I have mentioned before, married men will often refer to themselves as ‘ATMs.’

The wife gives the husband a particular allowance per month from his paycheque, or she closely monitors the amount he spends on her credit card (more on that later).  The idea is that, since ‘salarymen’ or men who work for Korean companies, work so late, they rarely have time to go to the bank, run errands, or buy groceries.  In addition, as women are still expected to do the lion’s share of running the household, they are culturally expected to make these purchases instead of men.  Finally, because of the obsession with afterschool education at hagwons, (driven of course by mothers themselves), women contend that they need to manage the finances in order to find ways to scrape together the various education fees for their children.  For the most part, there doesn’t seem to be a large amount of public debate surrounding women controlling finances.  In part because it is probably seen as a private household matter, and in part because the reality of the salaryman is that he does not have any time to do the things that need to be done to keep the household in working order.  However, that does not mean that there are no private concerns about this practice.

One time, when I was teaching business people, I had a late night class with a student who was about to get married, and it must be said, scared shitless about the whole ordeal.  No matter what the topic of the day – interview skills, ethical dilemmas, beauty, military service, conditional sentences – he would always find some way to alert his conversational group partners to the fact that he was getting married as a way of soliciting advice from his older male classmates.  One day, his worries turned to money, and the fact that he was about to lose all power over his bank account, paycheque, and what he believed to be life in general.  I was sitting in on the various small group discussions in order to correct errors when one of the older students looked around to make sure none of the female students were listening, leaned closer to the soon-to-be-married student and myself, and started telling us (in hushed English) about how to set up a secret bank account and how to hide it from your wife.  It was an interesting experience for me not only because I learned a whole lot about inner-family money conflicts, but also because somehow I was being excluded from the category of ‘female’ and allowed to ‘be a boy’ for a short time.

In another case that I know, which I hesitate to write about in too much detail here, a person I know gave his life savings, consisting of a couple tens of thousands of dollars to his Korean fiancée, who then held it basically ransom as a way to force him to marry him.  Really, the money situation was the least of that couple’s worries, they had many issues (obviously), but being from a culture where until recently, men tended to be in charge of the money, it was interesting in those first few years in Korea to see the exact opposite situation.  Another person I know was repeatedly unable to order lunch with us because he didn’t have enough allowance to buy his own meal.  His wife cooked for him and made him coffee in the morning, but he didn’t have enough money to buy his own food. 

Conversely, a Western male co-worker recently told me that long ago he gave his now Korean fiancée all of his money and somehow, ‘magically’ she got rid of his debts and helped him to start saving.  He credits her alone for their financial health and ability to budget in ways he never imagined possible.  Another friend, whose wife is in finance, was able to pay for a large chunk of their wedding though stock market earnings after she invested his money.  He too praises his wife for their financial success.  It’s such an interesting role reversal from Western culture where just a generation or two ago, women were told not to worry their pretty little heads with things like facts and figures.

Money has never been a thing Mr. Lee and I have wanted to discuss at length.  Early on he knew I wanted to be a career woman, and that I intended to support myself rather than rely on a man, and I knew that he was a person with a decent income who spent responsibility.  Neither of us actually even knew each other’s full financial situation until a few months ago, which sounds really dangerous, especially for the ever-prudent me, but it speaks to the general knowledge both of us had about each other’s character and the fact that we had successfully managed our own lives for quite some time before we met each other.  Anyway, when we broke down our budget a few months ago to figure out how much we could spend on our house, furniture, and wedding extras, we finally discussed what we were going to do about household money.

It has always been a given that we would have our own bank accounts.  Sometimes I joke with him that now that we are married he has to give me all his money so I can give him his small allowance back, but the truth is that he has always been deadly serious about not giving up control of his money in the same way that I would be if faced with a more ‘traditional’ Canadian way of financial control.  I think he has seen far too many cases around him of people around him held hostage by wives who have too much financial control.  Again, amazing how context can really change your perception on what is a feminist concern. For my part of course, I have always assumed I would have my own bank account and be able to manage my own money (and decide to combine it with my partner’s if need be), so we came to a very quick conclusion as to what to do with the bulk of our money.  Therefore, strangely, although managing our individual paycheques is very abnormal in Korea, we were both completely on board with this idea from the start with absolutely no pre-discussion needed.

However, in Korea we have an added issue in that there is no such thing as a joint bank account, even for household items.  Most of my friends in North America have dealt with money delegation by merging all or a significant portion of their assets into joint accounts (sometimes retaining individual accounts for ‘fun’ things or for credit purposes).  That’s the modern North American way.  Nevertheless, we do not have that option here in Korea. I’m not entirely sure why that is the case, although I do know that there are numerous situations where people have tried to cheat taxes by putting their own assets into family members’ names, so perhaps this is a banking concern in Korea?  Whatever the reason, no matter what, unless we pay household bills by cash – which would put us at a tax disadvantage and mean that we would pay more for things as many store/cable/phone plan etc systems are built on giving discounts to holders of certain cards – we have to choose one person to put their name on account for household items. 

After a little discussion, we decided to put the household account under Mr. Lee’s name.  When it comes to money issues in international marriage, there is an added problem from many people because expats still have many disadvantages with banks.  We can open bank accounts, but we are often denied credit cards or loans as ‘flight risks’ even when we have jobs that are more lucrative than the bank tellers denying such services, and are married to Koreans (thus showing ‘a commitment to Korea’).  As a result, when it comes to joint expenses and joint purchases, the largest factor in terms of whose name goes on the lease, loan, or account, usually boils down to who is Korean instead of who is the power player in the house or even who makes the money. Such a radically different system here, but again, I’m learning that what is ‘traditional’ depends on whose tradition, and what is ‘normal’ completely depends on the context you are living in.

Anyway, so the account is in Mr. Lee’s name, but I have the credit card (as my schedule permits more household purchases). Strangely, nobody ever checks the signature or name on the credit card, and even if they do, stores seem to expect that accounts are shared within families. In fact, clerks usually process my credit card purchases before I actually finish signing my name because it’s longer than most Korean names. 

We’re not sure if our system will work – it’s only been two weeks – but so far we’ve been able to merge our finances when we want to make purchases together while still retaining control over our own savings.  We’re a strange Korean couple, and I think we’re also an abnormal contemporary Canadian couple, but hopefully neither one of us will ever hide money in order to buy a cup of coffee, and hopefully both of us can continue to increase our savings by separately controlling our money.

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Well – the deed is done – the legal one that is. I am now officially an 아줌마 (Ajumma). And how are we spending the wedding night?…packing. Tomorrow morning, bright and early, the truck will makes it’s way to my current house and Mr. Lee’s parents’ house to pack up our things and take them to our new home. But before we can do that, we both have a lot of cleaning and packing to do; thus, a night filled with not-so-romantic fun!

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When you’re a little girl, you dream of the proposal and the big-puffy-white-wedding-dress-day, but you never think about what comes in between. I have to say, I’ve really enjoyed being engaged. Of course it gives you license to plan a bigger-than-life party of proportions which few of us will ever do again unless we are socialites or event planners, but it also gives you a different social status. When you are pushing thirty, and your ‘boyfriend’ is inching ever closer to forty, it seems rather ridiculous to call him a ‘boyfriend.’ Not only that, in Korea, where living together before marriage – or even living by yourself before marriage is still a rarity, and where there actually are enormous social and legal benefits to gain from getting married, taking that step into married status means much more than just ‘signing a piece of paper.’

Being engaged has given me a very different status in Korea. If we were in Canada, Mr. Lee would have met my family loooong before we ever started discussing marriage. He would have met the folks early on, come to Christmas dinners, Father’s Day golf games, and cousin’s Christenings, and we would have been slowly recognized as a serious couple as we integrated into my family as a couple. I’m not saying that there isn’t a change in how people are treated in Canada when they get engaged, but in Korea I did not go to any family gatherings until we had already set the date. In fact, I ordered my Canadian cake and chosen my wedding menu before I met Mr. Lee’s siblings and extended family. The reasoning I have always been told for this is that ‘because family is important, we only introduce our partner when we want to marry,’ but of course in Canada, the sentiment goes, ‘because family is important, we introduce our partner long before we want to marry.’ We have had a few friends who have been introduced to their future in-laws much earlier in the dating process, but they are younger and essentially of a different ‘generation’ (even just by 5 years) to Mr. Lee.

But being engaged has also meant that I get all of the recognition of our engagement, but less of the responsibility of marriage…and…well that’s nice! I haven’t had to cook and clean for an extra person, I haven’t had to collect dirty-boy-underwear from around the house, and I have been able to spend my free time as I like it. Living with another person – no matter how enlightened or do-your-own-thing- they are, means more compromises in how you live…and I haven’t had to do that yet. I’ve also had time to think about what my vision of ‘wife’ is…and about the kind of wife I want to be, but I haven’t had to actually implement or work through the process of any of those changes yet.

However, this will all change in about 10 hours when I will legally become…a wife.

I woke up this morning with a glee-tinged panic attack. Until today I really didn’t get the concept of ‘cold feet.’ I love Mr. Lee, and I think I’ve found myself a pretty good catch. I’ve also made, what for me, is the ultimate commitment to him by deciding to renew my visa in Korea again and again and again so I can stay in his country and be with him. But there is something culturally or cosmically special about signing that piece of paper and legalizing a partnership, and it’s been hitting me in waves again and again and again throughout today that I am going to be a wife. It’s an awesome commitment in that old sense of the word – incredible and powerful, but also full of responsibility and meaning. I guess because I’m getting so close that I am now sensing sense the importance of marriage instead of just cognitively understanding the concept, that I also feel weighed by the enormity of the commitment I am about to make. I have the same feelings about divorce as I have for abortions: they should be legal, but I want to do everything in my power to avoid putting myself in the situation where either would ever be necessary.

I guess when you get married, there is also that spark of nostalgia for the ‘single’ life. I myself spent many many many years as a very very very single girl, and for the most part, I didn’t like it. But I did learn a hell of a lot about myself, and I did come to trust my understanding of who I am and what I need – and I think this tinge of sadness is about that difficult but enlightening process is officially morphing into a very different life path at this moment. When the future looks delightful but new, sometimes we still cling onto the tried and true old path simply because it is the known path.

But beyond the fear and the nervousness, I’m also excited to be starting a new chapter of life. It’s a chapter I’ve been wanting to open for a long time, and it’s a life stage I am ready for. I’ve heard so much about being a wife – I’ve heard so much about love that endures all things and all ages, and I’m anxious to be done with the waiting and try my hand at wifedom myself.

So, so long ‘single’ life. So long my fiancée status. On this day, I will be a wife.

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